A Spoonful of Dirt to The Mountain: An Interview with James Tadd Adcox
James Tadd Adcox’s writing has appeared in Granta, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, PANK, Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, and Another Chicago Magazine, among many other places. He is the author of The Map of the System of Human Knowledge (Tiny Hardcore, 2012), Does Not Love (Curbside Splendor, 2014), and Repetition (Cobalt Press, 2016).
In addition to being one of my favorite writers, James Tadd Adcox is a longtime friend. We lived in Chicago amidst what I’ve come to think of as a golden period in small press activity (around 2011-2013), during which we were both managing editors for independent literary magazines (his was Artifice, mine was Red Lightbulbs). We spent a lot of time attending the same readings, milling around the same bookstores, sharing a few drinks and wandering the same parts of the city (possibly having the same bourbon-fogged conversations, repeatedly). Thus, I was especially excited to discuss his latest fittingly titled book.
Both your most recent book publication — Repetition — and your previous novel — Does Not Love — derive a really fascinating kind of energy from some sudden, transformative, truly unexpected turn of events. In both books, this turn of events dramatically changes the narrative world and its stakes, much in the manner of Don Delillo’s White Noise and the infamous “Airborne Toxic Event” that disrupts everything in its wake. Of course, we’re now immediately faced with the struggle of talking about these events without prohibiting the reader’s excitement of discovery (hint hint: read the books!), but I’m very curious about your own process of discovery when writing them. At what point in your process do these events reveal themselves to you? Do you know they’ll occur well in advance, or do they seize you with as much surprise as the reader feels?
Thank you, Meghan! I’m excited to have this conversation. I’ve been an admirer of your work for a long time now, and our discussions on art and writing over the years have been incredibly helpful in shaping and defining my ideas on the subjects.
It’s strange to me that Don Delillo has come up so much in reviews of Does Not Love. At the time I wrote it, I honestly hadn’t read enough Delillo to be properly influenced by him — though I’m aware enough to take it as a compliment, and I’ve been working to make up my Delillo deficiency ever since. Back then I was worried about being called out, probably with justification, for ripping off Donald Barthelme. That hasn’t really come up though, which means either that I anxiety-of-influenced myself sufficiently far away from him as to create something new, or that people aren’t reading Barthelme much anymore. Obviously, for reasons selfish and non-, I hope it’s the former.
I try to give myself a lot of room for surprise when I’m writing. I’ve learned that if I map everything out too carefully, if I know too much before I sit down to write a scene, I’m bored by word one. I do plan things out some on the macro-level; I start with some sort of shape in mind for the thing as a whole. But even there, at some point in the process I’m taken by surprise. When might vary from story to story or novel to novel. In Repetition the event you’re referring to — let’s say “a moment of violence” — wasn’t going to happen until it happened, though I can see how, narratively, even in the first draft I was leading up to it.
One school of thought would say that it was residing somewhere in my unconscious and didn’t come into my conscious mind until I got to the part where I was writing it. This might be giving the unconscious too much credit, though. I’m more inclined to think that as a writer you develop certain instincts for writing in such a way that something is going to happen, and as you get closer to that something, it becomes more concrete, even if the writer can’t predict its exact form beforehand.
Something that really strikes me in all of your work — but most especially in Repetition — is the extreme precision of your narrators’ descriptive language. Specifically, you have an amazing ability to capture the kind of descriptive precision driven by the sensation of annoyance. When someone’s annoyed, they’re rarely annoyed with something vague and amorphous: they’re annoyed by something incredibly — often obsessively — specific. I’d love to hear how the sensation of annoyance compels your writing, both generatively and metaphorically.
In some ways, annoyance feels almost like a first gear when I’m writing, or maybe a zero-point. It’s the voice I gravitate towards if I’m not trying to do anything else in particular. But because of that, it can feel too easy. Repetition was the first time I allowed myself to do that kind of voice for an extended period. I tried to mix in enough other things so that it wasn’t operating all at this one level — the monologues by the narrator’s assistant Sandra are there partly because I wanted a counterpoint to that voice.
Disgust allows its object a body in the way that, for example, love cannot. Part of the problem of writing about love or something one loves is that the beloved is already infinitely interesting to the one who loves, and it’s difficult to know what concrete things to put down to justify that. Whereas disgust gives you every detail of the disgusting thing, the too-muchness of it. Which is probably just a more complicated way of saying “the descriptive precision driven by annoyance.”
But it occurs to me that a lot of attempts to reclaim the body, whether from a feminist perspective or whatever else, are often attempts to bring parts of the body into the symbolic order, to un-body them. Did you see The Love Witch? The protagonist’s use of urine and blood in spells seems like a good example of this. Her spell-jars serve as a means of converting specific aspects of the body into symbols, and removing them therefore from the — unstructured but concrete — realm of disgust.
An example of the opposite, maybe, would be those naked Trump statues that appeared in various cities during the lead-up to the election. Which were problematic from certain angles — fat-shaming, plus the sort of inherent misogyny that goes along with symbolizing someone’s power or seriousness by the size of their penis — but which also could be seen as presenting us with disgust in its pure form: the body, with all of its follicles and warts and pimples and hairs.
Disgust gives you those things. It’s sort of a gift. When you love someone, their face becomes too full of meaning for you to really see them. When you are disgusted by someone, you see everything, more than anyone needs to.
Another aspect of Repetition that intrigues me is its achievement of incredible complexity within such a short space, the insanity-inducing mise-en-abyme elegance of its many nested narratives. There’s the repetition of an annual Constantius Society conference, which itself revolves discursively around “the act of repetition.” There’s Constantius’s referential text — also entitled “Repetition” — a fictionalized presentation of another real text — also entitled “Repetition” — by Søren Kierkegaard. There’s the narrator’s telling of this text itself, an act of assemblage and recollection necessitated by the aforementioned sudden event. Was the experience of writing these layers within layers a kind of natural unfolding (or interfolding) once you decided to write a book around the philosophical problem of repetition? Or was it a very concentrated, rigorous effort? Or both?
For some reason a lot of my early memories are in malls or department stores. My earliest memory of anything like an aesthetic sensation was in a department store, standing between two mirrors, and becoming overwhelmed seeing the reflection recede off into incomprehensibly many duplicates. Aesthetically, I feel like I imprinted on that image. It’s the closest thing I’ve got — consciously anyhow — to a primal scene.
The story it seems like I’m trying to write again and again, whether it’s in Repetition or in Map of the System or in Does Not Love, is always aiming at something like that feeling. In the flash fiction pieces in Map of the System, I was trying to create little contradiction machines: tiny quick stories that, through the force of contradiction, spiraled out to create a kind of infinity. I don’t know if I succeeded, but that’s what I was trying to do, that’s how I conceived of what I was up to.
In Does Not Love and Repetition I was working with longer narratives, which meant employing different strategies. The goal though was still to create moments in which the text feels like an object that’s impossibly larger on the inside than the outside. A sort of aesthetic vertigo, something that makes it feel as though the earth is dropping suddenly from beneath the reader’s feet. Which is what I always want from a story or a movie or whatever, ultimately.
I wanted Repetition to be a book where it wasn’t ever quite clear to the reader where the real world ended and its fictitious duplicates began. The book is constantly reflecting itself back at itself, in ways that, paradoxically, hopefully, cause it to seem to expand off into the distance.
Kierkegaard too is obsessed with the play of mirrors, very much aware of how an autobiographical surface, placed precisely, can send the reader wandering into labyrinths, can make the self — that frilled magician’s assistant — disappear. His best known books are all written under pseudonyms, and, more importantly, they are pseudonyms that are often at odds with each other, that quote and misquote and disagree with one another. He had a habit, when responding to bad reviews — he was touchy, aren’t we all — of writing to the reviewer as the pseudonym whose work had been reviewed. Nobody was fooled, but that wasn’t the point.
As a writer who’s personally obsessed with performative repetitions at the sentence level — anaphora, epistrophe — I’ve often received the criticism that repetitions of phrases inure the reader to their resonance: after seeing a phrase over and over and over again, the reader begins to read past it; the phrase begins to disappear. This idea is so interesting to me, especially considered alongside your novella’s seemingly contradictory thesis, that those who are unwilling to repeat themselves are doomed to “vanish completely.” What does this statement mean to you, both as the writer (of your own Repetition) and a reader (of Kierkegaard’s Repetition, which was the original source of this declaration)? Can I use your book as an amazing vehicle to silence my critics, or is this statement more slippery than that?
This is something that I love in your writing, Meghan! Your story “GIRL,” with its violence and twistiness, is one that’s haunted me over the years. God bless >kill author for publishing that story. May their archive never break down.
There’s a sort of hypnosis, a rhythm created by the repetition in “GIRL”: “I’M GONNA WRITE ABOUT YOU GIRL I’M GONNA WRITE ALL I WANT ABOUT YOU GIRL YOU BROKE OUR PROMISE WHEN YOU BROKE OUR PROMISE WHEN YOU BROKE UP WITH MY BOYFRIEND WHEN YOU BROKE MY HEART BY BREAKING UP WITH MY BOYFRIEND….” The repetition becomes invisible, maybe, because the repeated words transform into something else. The repetition becomes the ground we’re standing on, threatening at any moment to shift, lurch, give way.
Your question reminds me of something a psychologist once asked me, a question I’ve never since been able to shake: “What does it mean to be invisible?” I think that sometimes it can mean becoming a kind of ground, the thing that isn’t seen precisely because it structures what we do see.
When pidgins are formed, there’s inevitably a dominant language, that of the colonists or imperialists or whatever, and an oppressed language. In the pidgin that results, the vocabulary — the content — typically comes from the dominant language, but the pidgin’s syntax and grammar — the invisible stuff that gives shape to thought — comes from the oppressed language. This seems important.
And then there’s Gertrude Stein, that great fan of repetition, who tells us that repetition isn’t possible. Once you’ve repeated a thing it becomes a new thing, charged with the existence of the old thing. A new sort of depth is created. Repeat it enough and you’ve created something else entirely: the mirror, repeated infinitely, becomes a hallway. Any single instance might become invisible, but the whole is becoming something else.
Connected to all of this, somehow, is the plain fact that the work of novel-writing is a work of repetition. No one writes a novel in a sudden burst of overpowering inspiration, however much we would like that to be so. Each day, as the writer Jacques Jouet has a character say, the novelist adds a spoonful of dirt to the mountain they are trying to create.
Finally, I’m interested in the ways both Repetition and Does Not Love end on a kind of unfinished note, leaving an openness in the reader’s imagination. I’m very curious to hear how — and why — you did this, especially in the context of Repetition’s captivation with the cyclical rewriting of experience.
I suppose this goes back to the idea of the book as an object that feels larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Which is true of all books, in a way, though the internet, with its particular sort of banal and horrifying endlessness, has started to erode that sense. But I want a book to feel a little like it’s bleeding out into the reality around it. As though it’s causing things in the room to shift around you a little, on the edge of your vision. This is a kind of rewriting, the book rearranging, even if slightly, the reader’s experience. Of course it’s mutual — the reader’s experience of the book is a sort of rewriting, too. I think of my own relationships with certain books, some brief but intense, some ongoing, changing over the course of my life, each reading slightly different than the previous. And I think how strange and lovely it is that there are people in the world I’ve never met who have read a book that I’ve written and had an experience with it that I can never know. This is something mysterious and unquantifiable and I hope to God it remains that way.