For many readers, particularly outside the United States, John Wray’s name will be a new one, despite the fact that this 37 year old Brooklyn-based writer has already published two critically acclaimed novels, The Right Hand of Sleep, and Canaan’s Tongue, has won a Whiting Writers’ Award, and in 2007 was chosen by Granta for its influential Best Young American Novelists list (a list including the likes of ZZ.Packer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nicole Krauss).
His third novel, Lowboy, it seems to me, is one of those testing moments between art/commerce, where critics and fans come together and yell at the top of their lungs ‘this is great!’, and wait to see whether that judgement will be vindicated by sales.
It’s a gripping book, set in one-day, where William Heller, the novel’s teenage protagonist, sets out on a very personal mission, while his mother and a wizened detective take to the New York subway to track him down before things can get out of hand. ‘Well and good’, you might say to yourself, based on this plot outline, ‘but more the stuff of a standard screenplay than that of great literature’. Add to the mix, though, the fact that the novel’s teenage hero is suffering from schizophrenia and you see that Wray has set himself no simple challenge.
It’s a challenge that he rises to brilliantly. Within the first three paragraphs of the book we are transported to a world that is familiar and yet strange. Throughout this complex book his sculpted sentences make the reader pause often, and yet at the same time urge her/him on deeper into Lowboy’s world. Nathan Englander, author of the excellent Ministry of Special Cases described Lowboy as a “psychotic, subterranean, environmentally conscious, coming-of-age novel. ”, while Wray’s publishers frame it as Chuck Palahniuk meets Donnie Darko (for fans of Michel Faber and Jonathan Lethem). Charles Bock, writing in the New York Times Book Review said of it: “ this is a meticulously constructed novel, immensely satisfying in the perfect, precise beat of its plot ”
John Wray was kind enough to answer some questions for Three Monkeys:
I’ve started reading far more novels than I’ve finished, and I’ve a suspicion I’m not alone in this. So let’s talk about the start of Lowboy. There’s a tension, it seems to me, between revealing the strangeness of Lowboy’s world and at the same time keeping things concrete and understandable for the reader. Almost the exact opposite to Faulkner’s The Sound and Fury, where he belatedly makes concessions to the reader only after a lengthy and confusing first part. Was trying to keep the reader in the picture one of your considerations?
I thought a lot about The Sound and the Fury as I was writing Lowboy. Faulkner, it seems to me, was intentionally setting the reader a challenge at the beginning of his novel, as if to weed out all but the true believers; perhaps, as a genius, he had that luxury. But I guess I’d say I’m a bit more amiably disposed toward my readers. I want to surprise them, to stretch their sensibilties a bit, but I’d also like to entertain them.
Most of the novel is set in the New York subway, including the intriguing disused City Hall station. How important is the location? Let’s take an absurd suggestion, that the novel be moved above ground – perhaps to a similarly labyrinthine cityscape. Could it still work?
I don’t see the setting as intrinsic to the novel’s mood or substance. I chose New York because I live there, and because I’ve always had a weakness for the subway — my uncle helped to design the Vienna subway system, so I often visited those tunnels as I was growing up. That stuck with me, for some reason. But any location might have served as well. The novel that resulted would have looked and felt (and smelled) different, but it would have been essentially the same, a variation on the theme.
“The floor was shivering and ticking beneath his feet and the brick tiled arches above the train beat the murmurings of the crowd into copper and aluminium foil” – just one of the many lines in the novel that ring out like a well-struck chord. How important is the rhythm of individual lines to you? Do you have any favourite lines from other writers, which you wish you had written?
That’s an easy one to answer —nothing’s more important to me as a writer. And there are untold numbers of lines I wish I’d written, far too many to list. But here’s one that I’ve been liking today:
“You may not have lived much under the sea—” (“I haven’t,” said Alice) —“and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster—” (Alice began to say “I once tasted—” but checked herself hastily, and said, “No, never”) “—so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a lobster quadrille is!”
Or pick any line, at random, from The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler.
“Their names suited them now”, Lowboy observes at one point towards the novel’s climax. It’s always interesting to ask an author why he chose a specific and unusual name for a character – in your case, though, it’s hard to know where to start, as all three of your central characters have a number of different names. What was it about this dual naming that interested you?
I’m not sure why the notion of identity, and one’s subjective relation to one’s name, became so central to this novel in particular. Names have always interested me, but I suppose that’s true for every novelist. Maybe I wanted to investigate ways in which the non-schizophrenic characters in the book also find their senses of self bent and/or distorted by the world around them, and they way they find a place for themselves within that misshapen environment. But that’s just a guess.
Lowboy, like some of my favourite novels, is set in a single day. Are there any particular one-day novels that you admire? What are the advantages/disadvantages of it as a structure?
I think I’m going to have to go for the obvious choice here, and say Ulysses. The fact that any of us are actually writing novels post-Joyce has often struck me as hard to justify, to put it mildly.
Writing about film-maker Michael Haneke’s Cache, you commented “The fact that the film ultimately succeeds is no small tribute to the director’s considerable talent as a juggler of audience expectations.” In that context, let’s talk about the end of Lowboy (which for me was breathtaking). There’s a notable twist at the end of the novel, and suspense throughout – something which James Wood, writing in the New Yorker criticised as unnecessary and a “traditional truss”. How important was the suspense to you when writing the book?
Creating suspense was one of the great pleasures of writing Lowboy for me. Tradition can be very useful—even exciting—in the writing of a novel; we’re all of us a part of the tradition of fiction, whether we like it or not. Lowboy could, undoubtedly, have been an interesting and worthwhile book without the element of suspense; but it wouldn’t have been the book that I set out to write.
In that same interview you did with Haneke, he talks about how his challenge (representing violence responsibly on-screen) was made easier by learning from the mistakes made by pioneers before him like Kubrik. You’ve taken on an equally daunting challenge in Lowboy, trying to represent a schizophrenic’s perspective on the world. Did you learn anything in particular from the successes and failures of other novelists who have previously approached mental illness?
I think the temptation — for authors with literary ambitions particularly — is to employ me
ntal illness as a metaphor for a larger kind of ‘otherness’, and/or allow oneself to be seduced by the romantic misconceptions about madness that so many books and films and pop songs have perpetuated. Brilliant as it is in many respects, Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a good example of what I mean. I tried my best, in writing Lowboy, to avoid those pitfalls, and books like Kesey’s were invaluable to me in that regard.
In an interview with Bold Type magazine you said “Many, many contemporary novels are written to provoke an artificial, pre-chewed sort of identification with their characters [...] I’m not interested in telling the reader how to feel; I’d rather not insult his or her intelligence”. A blank-canvas question: What are you interested in doing with your fiction?
That’s a tough one to answer — I think I’d have a different answer to it every day. Today, I’d say I’m trying to alienate my readers very slightly, to disengage them, temporarily, from the world of their subjective experience, so that when they return to it they see it with the eyes of somebody fresh off the boat.
Lowboy is a novel that has various filmic elements – it’s hard, for example, for a non-American like me, to imagine the New York subway without immediately picturing various films. At the same time, though, it seems virtually impossible to film. The book stands out, to me, as not only a great story, but as a good example of why novels are important as a form. Let’s talk about your relationship with film as a writer? Can the relationship between film and literature simply be defined by whether a book is filmable or not?
I’m a hopeless film junkie, like a lot of writers I know, and I’m not surprised that bleeds into my writing. I certainly often conceive of scenes and descriptive passages in terms of camera position, depth of frame, tracking shots, and so on. But what’s exciting to me about fiction are precisely those qualities — interiority, complexity of mood, subjective coloring — that can’t be reproduced by any other medium. And I tend to privilege those elements in my writing, which of course makes my novels difficult to film, to put it mildly. Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see somebody try!
You’ve started writing on twitter, a story based on a character cut out of Lowboy, which gives me the opportunity to steal an interesting question from an old Paris Review interview with John Cheever (by Annette Grant): “Do characters take on identities of their own? Do they ever become so unmanageable that you have to drop them from the work?”
I’ve never found that characters become unmanageable, actually. that sounds a bit too exciting to have much to do with my writing process, which is mostly drudgery, at least in the later stages of revision. But sometimes a character, or a section, simply falls out of step with the narrative, and needs to be cut — or, as one novelist pal of mine likes to term it, “shitcanned”.
You’ve spoken before about how America during the Bush administration influenced your second novel Canaan’s Tongue. Global warming features prominently in Lowboy. Novelist William Wall, writing in TMO recently argued that writers, urgently – in the face of climate change and financial ruin – have a duty to engage politically in their work: “What is important is what we write because, as the legal maxim says, qui tacet consentire videtur — he who keeps silent is seen as giving consent.” What kind of relationship should a writer have with politics (used in the broadest sense)?
It’s very, very dangerous to conceive of one’s work politically. Only rarely does that approach lead to effective fiction, at least in my experience. The best way I’ve found is to write about what troubles and obsesses you, some of which will, by its very nature, be poltical. But to take the world’s (or even simply one’s own society’s) ills as the stated focus of one’s work is asking for trouble, like staring into the sun with binoculars. It’s very hard to keep any kind of perspective on what’s new and interesting and what is not.
And to close, a slightly less long-winded question: what kind of novelists do you like to read? What makes for a story that will grab your attention?
I have no fixed criteria, I think, other than an ear for style. Right now I’m reading Then We Came To The End by Josh Ferris, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, and enjoying each of them hugely. I seem to read three of more books at once lately. Probably not a good sign. I’m turning into a reader of easy virtue.