Susan Landers: Let's start with how you came to write Dead Carnival.
Mark Wallace: Such things are always mysterious to me. I wanted to write a horror novel, and probably I was feeling pretty horrified, about the world I was living in and what was ahead of me. But I didn't want to write a standard horror novel; I was interested in the dynamics of horror, and of fear generally, and I wanted to understand how horror and fear worked, at least partly, I suppose, so that I could face them well enough to get on with living. I think a lot of what I write concerns learning how to face things I don't know how to face yet. Not that I'm necessarily so selfish as to be concerned only with what's happening to me. But if I don't understand how something is working on me, how can I understand how it's working on anybody else?
SL: Did anything frighten you personally when writing the book?
MW: I'd have to say that writing the book scared me, in the sense that I was afraid that I couldn't do it. It wasn't a book that was easy to write, because part of it has to do with the confrontation with my own fears, and confronting one's own fears is scary. At the end of the first chapter, one of the book's many unidentified voices says, "I dreamed I would not have to say these things, but woke up and realized I had said them." That sentence says a lot about how the process worked for me. If the book has any value for others, of course, it would be because such a confrontation with fear resonates with people other than myself, who also have to confront their fears, and who live in a world where there's a lot to be afraid of.
SL: That's good to hear because as I was reading it, I couldn't help but think of my own fears and anxieties. So are you saying that what I took to be simple solipsism on my part was actually one of the novel's goals?
MW: Well, a book can't really force anyone to do something they don't want to do, which is what makes literature different from, say, an army. So I'm afraid that if you reacted with solipsism, some of that solipsism has to be your own (laughs). Nonetheless, yes, the book repeatedly directs its problems back at readers, does not leave those problems self-contained within the text. So if Dead Carnival helped you to a kind of self-consideration, that's certainly part of the novel's intention, and its form. It's a book that asks its readers lots of questions.
SL: One of the things that interests me about "facing one's fears" (in the abstract, that is) is the way you simultaneously sense feelings of power and vulnerability. On top of that is how your confrontation of fear may bring about changes to the level of power you hold in the world. Can you talk about the book's concern with the ongoing negotiation and manipulation of fear?
MW: I guess I'd have to say that I think fear is unavoidable in human beings, and I think that's true because our bodies are finite. We know we can be hurt, we know we're going to die, so how can we avoid being afraid? So while it may sound stunningly retrograde to say so, I think fear starts as a biological condition, a fact about the limitations of our bodies. That said, societies and people structure their fears in different ways. When I was doing research for my dissertation ("The Gothic Universe of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs") I realized that one way to look at the history of the gothic novel was almost as a catalogue of people's fears in particular times and places. Certain fears get magnified, others swept away, depending on the context. 19th century Americans were terrified of being buried alive, literally as well as metaphorically, and the literature of the period is full of such stories. Fear, whatever its source, gets built into our societies; people are taught to fear certain things more than other things, and more than is helpful to them in many cases. Because fear is a concept, and structured, it can also be manipulated. Fear is an industry, and there's lots of money to be made off fear. Horror literature and horror movies are a fear industry. Even more crucially, people's lives are often controlled by other people who will structure and, therefore, manipulate fear. So the social dynamic of fear is also a power struggle, involving the manipulation of consciousness to achieve certain ends.
SL: The book is not shy when it comes to critiquing mainstream politics or aesthetics. That said, you told me on a previous occasion that Dead Carnival shouldn't be considered leftist due to the inadequacy of terms "left" and "right." Would you say the book is engaged with any particularly political frameworks?
MW: I have a lot of skepticism about the term "mainstream." Ultimately I think of it as more of a mystification than something that actually exists and is worth criticizing. I don't think Dead Carnival engages a political framework in any specific localized sense beyond the fact that the book is concerned with issues of power and control, life and anti-life in any number of contexts and historical moments, as well as literature's own history, especially horror literature. It's often about what and who is in charge and why, I guess, and what the effects of that are. The sections on "Forms of Torture" and "Routines" have to do with repeated kinds of behaviors and attitudes that I see as harmful. All the "Forms of Torture" are about psychological or cultural dynamics that lead, purposefully or not, to the infliction of pain. The "Routines" have to do with repeated neurotic patterns in which people are trapped. Of course describing them like that oversimplifies the way they interact within the novel; the infliction of pain and repeated neurotic patterns interact in complex ways.
SL: What struck me about this look at power and control, is your willingness to criticize those things which stand outside the dominant culture. In the section that Avec has just published, you attack the idealization of the artist's position of "outsider." Can you talk about this in light of how the book is an "experimental" novel?
MW: It seems to me that the standard novel, with its character and development and conflicts and denouement, is often a form of escape, no matter how literarily stylish it is while going about that task. Not always; certainly I don't want to oversimplify. But the standard form of the novel can take us out of our situation by putting us temporarily in the situation of invented characters and a recognizably comforting story development, however full of unexpected twists and turns. I wanted to deny myself (and therefore my readers) any chance of escape within the novel. I wanted the questions of the novel to come back directly to you the reader. The concept of the artist as "outsider," criticized in "The Big Lie" section of the novel, is a concept of art as escape, of the idea that as artists we stand outside social problems, that we can get outside of our own problems. You have to understand, though, that for much of my life I have thought of art as a way to escape all sorts of things regular jobs, homes, love relationships, whatever. The artist's Big Lie is very attractive to me. That's why I have to critique it so pointedly. I wouldn't have written a novel concerned with escaping if I didn't want to escape so badly myself. I just feel, though, that this desire to escape is one I have to get past, although I'm never going to get rid of it. Besides, one has to recognize that within the novel, the criticism of The Big Lie goes almost completely unheard. It may read like a manifesto but it erases itself because it has no audience, more or less. I mean, it's found on a piece of dirty crumpled paper on the floor by an art student. I don't know how much of the message he understands, which is a way of saying I don't know how much I want the message to be a message. It's more like an irrelevancy that happens to be central. A lot that's central should be irrelevant; a lot that's irrelevant should be more important that it is.
SL: This relationship between the inside and the outside seems pertinent to the book's relationship (and, perhaps, debt) to Gothic traditions.
MW: Well, something I'm definitely NOT doing relative to the gothic tradition is trying to fit Dead Carnival into that tradition in some consciously defined way. Eliot's idea in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is that the successfully canonical writer tries to use up and overcome his personality in order to create a text that consciously redefines tradition but also becomes a part of it. I didn't write Dead Carnival to redefine the gothic in Eliot's sense, to be the latest new thing in the tradition of the gothic novel, so to speak. That said, I'm using the gothic tradition all over the book, obviously, and I don't mean just the older tradition of the gothic but all sorts of relatively contemporary "horror" art as well, including low budget B horror movies and all sorts of trash pop horror novels. There are any number of conscious parodies (and not simply parodies, but also hopefully intriguing reuses) of gothic arts. Perhaps the most pointed is the long H.P. Lovecraft parody about the man who's been turned into some half-creature, half-human thing. But there's also the Dr. Frankenstein parody, the aristocratic De Sade character, all the living dead and zombie references, some hints of James Whale-like uses of the way homosexuality is often positioned as monstrous, even references to true crime stuff like the Manson murders. But my references aren't limited to the gothic I've got some detective parodies too I'm making fun of a terrible James Lee Burke novel in there somewhere but I'll leave you to figure that one out yourself. And there are any number of references to things that are more tangentially gothic Faulkner and El Greco, Dante and Beatrice, Artaud. The book, centrally I think, concerns what counts as monstrous and what doesn't, and what are the social problems inherent in the monstrous. In my dissertation I make a case for two tendencies in gothic literature which I call "conservative" and "radical." The "conservative" gothic ultimately sees the monstrous as coming from outside the bounds of socially constituted moral norms; the monster by definition is a social outsider, that which cannot and should not be allowed to survive in a moral society. The "radical" gothic, on the other hand, turns the tables on this thinking and often suggests that it is precisely the social body itself that has become monstrous; it's not outsiders who are monsters but insiders.
SL: I'm glad to hear you mention James Whale because I was struck by what I considered an inordinate amount of violent sexual acts that could be associated with homosexuality. In other words, there was a whole lot of anal probing going on, Mark. What's going on there?
MW: Nothing that hasn't gone on for a long time (laughs). Seriously, though, what I'd say is that, first, almost all the supposedly sexual acts and suggestions in Dead Carnival, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are not sexuality but abuse, and indeed the De Sade character enacts a whole theory of sexuality as abuse. I'm writing a horror novel, after all; it's not a novel about people constructing helpful sexual identities that lead them to fulfilling lives. It's more about how supposedly "sexual" acts can be used in constructing dynamics of violence, power and fear. Male anal penetration exists at a kind of social boundary line that's crucial, I think, to this question of insiders and outsiders. It's the sexual act most blatantly rejected by a normative, conservative, heterosexual society. I think its implications on the three occasions that it happens in the novel are different each time. For the alien abductee, it's part of this powerful mystery that controls him and that's utterly beyond him, and that he both desires and fears, loves and hates. In one of the "Forms of Torture" sections, it's obviously being used by a slave-owning class that conceives of "pleasure" as the right to physically abuse one's slaves of course, they use heterosexual intercourse in the exact same way. And finally, with Jimmy, it becomes the high point of the monster's "revenge," if you will it's the act that a character like Jimmy most associates with violent abuse (remember James Dickey's Deliverance?), and so, when he attacks the monster who's essentially minding its own business (and a monster who is a representation of repressed sexual fears and desires), the monster, in fighting back, fights back in what Jimmy will experience as the most sexually monstrous way possible. So the issue in Dead Carnival is not whether the act itself is monstrous obviously, it can be or not, depending upon the intentions of the people involved. The issue is how such an act, as an example of what is often repressed in a conservative culture, becomes a focal point for dynamics of violence, power and fear.
SL: Okay, let's get back to something you mentioned earlier escape.
MW: I guess I would say that a central concern of the book is the desire to escape, to run away, and a critique of the desire for escape. I know a lot of people on the run, psychologically and literally. I've often been on the run myself and I think a lot of people are. They'll think that somewhere they can go will make things better than they are right here. I don't believe that anymore myself, although yes, I'm sure some places are more helpful than other places for some people. But at some point you have to stand and face whatever is chasing you. And whatever the particular dynamics of somebody's situation, the "dominant society," not a simple concept, is part of what's chasing us right now, since anti-life principles (like money, a philosophical abstraction which is quite obviously indifferent to human beings) are in charge almost everywhere. One of the main characters, Beatrice, is on the run, wants to escape. Or more exactly, she's trying to come to terms with her feeling that she needs to escape while she's in the process of taking a journey that she hopes is not simply about escaping.
SL: So, is that escape or process?
MW: Escape in its pure form is not a process. It's a neurosis, and the fundamental feature of neurosis is repetition. Neurosis is the opposite of process in the way that you mean. The neurotic person reacts the same in all situations; the neurotic person is unable to tell that different people and situations require different responses. So the neurotic escapee is a person who by definition runs away, in the exact same way, from every person or situation, and will do so repeatedly, inevitably, and forever, unless the neurotic pattern is recognized and changed. That said, it's certainly true that one can have the desire for escape as part of a more helpful process of discovering and creating a place in the world that one finds tolerable. We can have the desire to escape without being neurotically determined by it. It's a matter of the degree to which the feeling unconsciously drives us or becomes part of the way we understand ourselves and the world. Throughout Beatrice's journey, she's constantly reflecting on the meaning of the journey, whether there is any meaning, whether she should have gone at all, why she went and what she's looking for. Her answers to these questions are different at different points. By no means is she "escaping" in the simple neurotic sense. However, there's always the danger that her journey will simply become reduced to the desire to escape in that way. She seems to understand that she risks becoming a neurotic puppet at all times, in the sense that the puppet is pulled purely by strings controlled by outside forces. The puppet stands as the extreme mark of the opposite of our possibilities for (relative) autonomy, interrelation, and choice.
SL: Possibilities for us or Beatrice?
MW: She's just a character in a book. You and I are the question, whether we can solve the problems created by our need to escape. I didn't want Dead Carnival to be about characters. Characters are a form of escape. I wanted the novel to be about people, you and me and whoever else.
SL: Okay. One last question about fear and process. I really like this idea of the gothic novel representing current cultural fears. Do you think that one of the current fears in society, one certainly represented by the form and content of Dead Carnival, is the unresolved nature of process?
MW: In the conservative gothic, with its fear of the unknown and the social outside, the stories within stories, the unfinished and the uncertain are the structural marks of fear; safety is achieved by the characters in such tales only when the novel ultimately reaches closure, and we as readers see who has survived and what their values are, etc. I think a link can be made between the conservative gothic and the idea that in a conservative society, the unknown and the uncertain are sources of fear. But it's not automatically necessary to experience them as sources of fear. One could, in fact, and some people do, experience them as sources of possibility. So the novel leaves things unfinished to explore this question of the uncertain as a source of fear or possibility. And again, I hope the issue is not so much what happens to Beatrice and the other characters as what happens to readers in their reactions to the variously unfinished stories in the novel. Beatrice's tale is left hanging, left to some extent in the hands of readers, so that readers can think about how they imagine the ending and what that says about their way of looking at the world. And I guess my point about the possibilities of open-endedness would suggest that keeping things in the novel unfinished is necessary both to question the needs of readers who demand closure, and to create opportunities for readers who see that the lack of closure allows for different kinds of interaction with the text, and hopefully with the world.
Mark Wallace Publications
Temporary Worker Rides A Subway (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, forthcoming), 1998 New American Poetry Prize Winner
Nothing Happened, and Besides I Wasn't There (Washington, DC: Edge Books, 1997)
Sonnets of a Penny-A-Liner (Washington, D.C.: Buck Downs Books, 1996)
Every Day Is Most Of My Time (Norman, OK: Texture Press, 1994)
Complications From Standing In A Circle (Buffalo, NY: Leave Books, 1993)
Refiguring Foil (Elmwood, CT: Abacus, August 1998)
My Christmas Poem (New York: Poetry New York, 1998)
The Haunted Baronet (Washington, D.C.: Primitive Publications, 1996)
In Case of Damage To Life, Limb, Or This Elevator (Morris, MN: Standing Stones Press, 1996)
Building From White Buildings (Elmwood, CT: Abacus, May 1996)
The Lawless Man (Los Angeles, CA: Upper Limit Music, 1996)
The Sponge Has Holes (Buffalo, NY: Tailspin Press, 1994)
By These Tokens (Binghamton, NY: Triangle Press, 1990)
Shapes, with Joseph Battaglia and Keith Eckert (Binghamton, NY: Triangle Press, 1990)
The Cold and the Simple, A Blues (Binghamton, NY: Triangle Press, 1989)
Renga By Mail, with Joseph Battaglia and Keith Eckert (Binghamton, NY: Triangle Press, 1989)
Three Rengas, with Joseph Battaglia and Keith Eckert (Binghamton, NY: Triangle Press, 1988)
The GW Review (Washington, D.C: Spring 1999): The Writing Life Series No. 6. Contains an interview and a selection of work.
Poesia do Mundo/2 (Coimbra, Portugal: Edicoes Afrontamento, 1998)
An Anthology of New (American) Poets (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman, 1997)
The Gertrude Stein Awards In Innovative North American Poetry: 1993-94 (Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon, 1995)
Writing From the New Coast: Presentation (Stockbridge, MA: Oblek Editions, 1993)
The Lab Book, ed. Jena Osman (Buffalo, NY: Poetics Program, 1992)
The Big Lie (Penngrove, CA: Avec Books, 2000)
Shadows: New and Selected Dialogues on Poetics. With Jefferson Hansen. (St. Louis Park, MN: Poetic Briefs, 1996)
You Bring Your Whole Life to the Material (Buffalo, NY: Leave Books, 1992)
Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990's, ed. with Steven Marks (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2001): forthcoming
A Poetics of Criticism, ed. with Juliana Spahr, Kristin Prevallet, and Pam Rehm (Buffalo, NY: Leave Books, 1994)
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