Trusting the REader Completely
M. Allen Cunningham on Partisans
he newest novel from M. Allen Cunningham, Partisans: A Lost Work by Geoffrey Peerson Leed, appeared in the spring, and became one of six titles shortlisted for the 2014 Flann O'Brien Award. Cunningham's debut novel, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, set in nineteenth-century Northern California, was a #1 Indie Next Pick and a finalist for the 2005 Indie Next Book of the Year Award alongside Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The Salt Lake Tribune named The Green Age one of six “Best Books of the West” in 2004. Lost Son, Cunningham’s second novel, concerns the life and work of Rainer Maria Rilke, and was named a Top Ten Book of 2007 by The Oregonian.
The following conversation is the result of multiple emails, between which the Propeller representative often went silent for a week (or more) at a time, absences both completely unexplained and wholly irresponsible. Cunningham, on the other hand, was at all times thoughtful and responsive.
Propeller: Partisans is framed as a found manuscript. In other words, there's an introduction by you, which leads to “In Country,” a manuscript attributed to Geoffrey Peerson Leed. “In Country” is broken by sections of Leed's personal notebooks and correspondence. How did you hit upon structuring the novel this way? What kind of material or aesthetic effects did this framing and structure allow you to access?
Cunningham: It was my hope that the “found manuscript” premise—and my introduction— would have a few different effects. I wanted to throw a light immediately on the objectness of this book, encouraging the reader to view it as an artifact of kinds, a thing that exists only because actual papers were found at some point following the author's disappearance—that is, only because someone was paying attention. The question of the physicality of books becomes a major theme in the G.P. Leed sections, of course. The framing also, I hope, instills a sense of mystery right from the start: will we discover why Leed disappeared? What ultimately happened to him? Presented with his “primary documents,” we are, I hope, encouraged to look more closely for clues than we might be within a more conventional narrative conceit. I lay the book entirely in the reader's hands. As for the structure—the use of fragments, etc.—that's undoubtedly a direct product of my enthusiasms as a reader. Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge comes to mind, for instance—a novel built on a similar premise: consisting of diary entries, notes, prose poems, as well as an unsent letter or two. That's a book I've kept close for most of the last twenty years. Then too, I've read a great deal of David Markson and John Berger over the last decade or so. Both of these writers make powerful use of the non sequitur, and I suppose I drew on those examples in terms of the juxtapositions and ellipses occurring in Partisans. Actually, Berger's first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1959), was a direct model in many ways, and the protagonist of that book, Janos Lavin, in fact appears here and there in Partisans.
Propeller: When you say A Painter of Our Time was a model in many ways, could you describe some of them? What kind of things were you modeling?
Cunningham: I rather explicitly modeled the framing of the G.P. Leed sections of Partisans on Berger's book: a mysteriously disappeared artist whose found manuscript is introduced by a second author/editor's preface, and whose diary entries are blatantly philosophical in tone. But my discovery of A Painter of Our Time was extremely important, as well, to the overall evolution of Partisans. While I'd read a great deal of Berger's work, I was unaware of A Painter of Our Time until I happened upon it in the book section of a Goodwill one day. Up until that point, I'd believed that I was writing two novels simultaneously. One was the story of a soldier in World War One or World War Two who goes MIA and chooses to stay that way. The other was a kind of faux biography of a reclusive artist. The more I worked on the second project, the more I found myself writing in the first person, constructing purported journal entries by the artist himself. The discovery of Berger's first novel, which is composed of journal entries by Janos Lavin, was totally serendipitous, and I brought the book home and read it straight through. Its overall conceit helped me understand what I wanted GP Leed's papers to look like, and the freeness of the imagination in that book, its open-ended quality, helped me to see that there were already many threads uniting my soldier story and my reclusive artist story—that in fact they were somehow the same book.
John Berger. His first novel “opens out entirely to the world beyond its own narrative.”
Propeller: Could you say a bit more about what you mean by “open-ended quality”? Because the term seems on the surface to imply something about endings, but I suspect that's misleading. You're talking about something present throughout the book, right?
Cunningham: Yes, I'm referring to the way in which Berger's book opens out entirely—on almost every page—to the world beyond its own narrative, and the way in which Berger calls on readers to make their own sense of the book's many “missing” ligatures and absent transitions. It's open-ended in the sense that it trusts the reader completely—not only to bring themselves to the story and to stay with it, but to complete it by their own means. I wanted that quality in Partisans. Berger helped give me the faith to try for it. And so the two alternating parts of Partisans are not related in any immediately obvious ways. As Leed himself says at one point, “Dare the reader to understand.”
Propeller: What kind of dare is that for the writer, though? Because when you mention “missing” ligatures and transitions, I'm assuming it's not as if you wrote them and then deliberately erased them to turn the novel into a kind of puzzle. To what degree are those connections present for you as the writer, though they aren't on the page, and to what degree are they also missing for you?
Cunningham: You're right, I don't mean to suggest that I deliberately elided or obscured a more complete original text in order to baffle the reader. No, those now “missing” connections were mostly present in my mind most of the time (and semi-present some of the time). In other words, my process, my own “dare” to myself as a writer was a matter of deciding how plainly and demonstratively I needed to know—on the page, for the sake of “helping” the reader along—what I knew in the secret confines of my authorial mind, and how much I could rely on the reader's own sense of intelligent, inquiring involvement. There's a line, certainly, between artfulness and obfuscation. But what I wanted the reader to find in the book was an invitation based on respect. I hope a reader looks into this book and says, “Here's a book that takes me seriously and doesn't patronize me.”
Propeller: One of Leed's notebook entries has a section that reads: “We gave up on the material world. We transferred all our faith to the promise of the disembodied marketplace. [...] What we never realized was old, how deep-seated our impulses really were. How the whole enterprise could be traced back directly to the fear and loathing of the body, those ancient prejudices. We are doomed to yearn for the inorganic, whatever is clean and bright and painless.” The novel takes place in a speculative society. Could you briefly describe the social and political context in the world of the novel? But more importantly, I'd like to hear how you feel that context is connected to what the narrator claims: fear and loathing of the body. Does the disembodied marketplace despise the material world and humanity?
Cunningham: Yes, Leed’s comrade Kasden makes those statements. Both he and Leed, the originators of the Literary Resistance, are struggling to survive (as humans and artists) in what Neil Postman would have called a Technopoly, a totalitarian society in which all things have been systematically redefined to suit a social order whose basis and aims are technological—or, more specifically, technoconsumerist—in nature. Technoconsumerism at its extreme is predicated on all those things Aldous Huxley warned about in Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited: a ruthless faith in the progress of machines, in the perfectibility of data, in the eradication of what is immeasurable, and in the obliteration of physical constraints, whether that means humans triumphing over geography via machines, or neurological “conditioning” optimizing human performance, or the attainment of “eternal life” via an upload into the “immortal” network, (there are already those among us today who ardently believe in this last). The disembodied technoconsumerist marketplace despises what is human because humankind is characterized by imperfectability. It follows, then, that Leed’s own time despises the work of artists like him.
Propeller: Are there particular entities in our world today that you feel despise the human? I'm sure readers are thinking of things, but I'm wondering which entities are the first you think of when you consider this trend.
Cunningham: On the tip of my tongue are Amazon, Google, Facebook, the Nielsen Company (purveyors of BookScan), and probably at least a few major pharmaceutical corporations.
Propeller: I suspect those entities strongly align with the category you called “the perfectibility of data,” but I want to be sure. What do you mean by the perfectibility of data? Why is that anti-human?
Cunningham: Yes, each of these entities exists, has its very raison d'être, in a seemingly unstoppable drive toward “perfect” data. This motive is anti-human because to follow it to its extreme is to create disembodied psychic and social forces and conditions that tyrannize us all. If we take each entity as a case in point, we can already see this happening. Amazon: their warehouse death-marches, their drones, and the equation of cultural goods with widgets and potholders, reinforcing the idea that reading is merely consumerism and that we are all shoppers before we are citizens or souls. Google: their quest to “know everything” is really a horrendous centralization of power in which it is they who know everything—about all of us, and their ideal future is one in which we are never offline and in fact become our computers. Facebook: Giving ever greater credibility to the widespread impression that privacy is passé, while relentlessly mining our lives and relationships for their own gain. Nielsen/BookScan: Erroneous but largely unchallenged point-of-sale data increasingly shaping the publishing marketplace, thus the intellectual and spiritual climate of our society. Pharmaceutical companies: Perhaps less explicitly data-oriented than the others mentioned, they are intent on—and by and large succeeding in—convincing us all that we can and should eradicate our every last painful idiosyncrasy. (Partisans doesn't really touch on pharmaceuticals, though.)
Propeller: These strike me as companies or industries whose success hinges on quantity and size. Is the desire for “perfect” data somehow bound up with size? Are there any cultural entities of similar size or scope that you feel are pro-human?
Cunningham: Public libraries are foundationally pro-human. There is no other surviving cultural entity as special—as pure—as a good library. Though even the major metropolitan ones can hardly compare in size to the corporations we're talking about, we should all give thanks for libraries!
Propeller: Are there particular libraries that have been influential to you? Do you like to work in libraries, or are you mostly in and out to get new books? I just don't want to respond to your last answer with some unspoken thought like, 'Oh, sure, libraries are great,' without making sure I understand exactly what you mean. Because if we're talking about libraries as a counterbalance to anti-human forces, you must be sensing in libraries some qualities or potentials beyond just 'You don't have to pay'...
Cunningham: I could go on for a long time in reply to this excellent question, because some of the most unforgettable moments of my life have taken place in libraries—moments which, to risk sounding saccharine, could well be called “spiritual” experiences. Sitting for hours, at age twenty, in the basement of the Concord Free Public Library poring over a handwritten manuscript by Henry David Thoreau was one such experience. What makes a library a bulwark against the anti-human is, very simply, the unquantifiable idealism the place represents. A good library is a monument to curiosity, to being awake in the world. Here in Portland, the Multnomah County Library is a bottomless inspiration. I had the opportunity to write a three-part paean to this institution for a local newspaper a few years back, in which I referred to the “immense cumulative labor of mind and spirit” one always senses in a good library. A library, I said, “embodies all the inquisitive energy of a people aspiring to the status of civilization.” That's what makes it a humanizing force. I often work in libraries, yes, especially while traveling!
Propeller: As is reflected in our discussion of the structure of Partisans, this doesn't seem like a simple book to write—you mentioned that you thought you were working on two books simultaneously, and that these then turned out to be one book. How long were you working on the project? And when you're working on a book, do you have deadlines for solving issues like “Am I working on two books or one?” How do you keep yourself moving forward in the writing when you're not entirely sure what you're doing?
Cunningham: I wrote the first pages of Partisans (the Jude opening) while at the Yaddo Colony in the summer of 2010, and if memory serves, I finished the whole book in late 2013 or early 2014. Back home in the fall of 2010, feeling stymied, I started work on what became the G.P. Leed sections. I believe I finally realized these two projects were one project sometime late in the first year of writing. I've never taken less than three years to write a novel, so I'm fairly at peace with the extreme inefficiency and irrationality of the creative process involved. I hardly ever know exactly what I'm doing or where I'm going. If the project happens to be based on actual events I may have a general historical or factual “arc” I'm working from, but overall the novelizing experience for me is almost totally free-associative and exploratory in nature, and sometimes it is just sentence by sentence. Certainly the most exciting paths are those I find through pure surprise. Often, though, there's virtually no sense of moving forward—it's more an experience of mere accumulation. I think Leed remarks somewhere in his pages about the way a book will mysteriously grow under your hands. How does one ever keep moving forward except by coming to terms with all the sitting and stasis necessary to the writing practice? I'm with Annie Dillard on the subject: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.”
M. Allen Cunningham is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and the Regional Arts & Culture Council, fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission (2007 and 2013) and Literary Arts (2012), and residencies at Yaddo (2010 and 2014). His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, Alaska Quarterly Review, Tin House, Epoch, and other literary magazines. Cunningham lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes occasional book reviews and cultural commentary, leads public discussions for the Oregon Humanities council, and is at work on two new books. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books.