Research Notes · 01/08/2021

Babel

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Gabriel Blackwell writes about Babel from Splice Books.

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My first thought when thinking about the research done for Babel was a kind of confusion, fitting, I think, for my thoughts about this book: that I’d done very little research, much less, I think, than I’d done for previous books, that, probably because I’d written it alongside a book of nonfiction that required a great deal of more traditional research including even microfilm, writing the fictions of Babel was, for me, a kind of escape from research, but then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, I did research for this book, that the reason I thought I’d done very little research for Babel is that the research I did wasn’t that kind of research, that, in other words, I didn’t set out to synthesize, but really more to listen, to take in the words of others. These are fictions that, in my mind, are mostly directed by language and in particular speech rather than by plot or conceit, and it seemed to me that research into language and in particular speech is better done sort of haphazardly, or anyway more easily done sort of haphazardly, or anyway I mean that that’s what I’ve done, sort of haphazardly: research usages of language. I’ll skip through that particular confusion here — because, besides the economy of it, there is a thrill in moving quickly, in skipping, we all know this to be true, sometimes we just want to come to the end and not be forced to pretend to enjoy the journey and we wish for all of the vista-less stretches of landscape between origin and endpoint collapsed together in our mind in a single “and then” — in favor of a path through the research I did for this book that’s clearer if less faithful to what it describes.

The opening essay, “( ),” is about a ventriloquist named Signor Blitz or else it’s about silence or else it’s about echoes, and the reading I did that pushed me to want to write the essay in the first place, Antonio Blitz’s autobiography, Fifty Years in the Magic Circle, Being an Account of the Author’s Professional Life; His Wonderful Tricks and Feats; With Laughable Incidents, and Adventures as a Magician, Necromancer, and Ventriloquist — as fascinating a book as you, reader, think its title is, which is to say that if you see nothing interesting in that title, you won’t think much of the book and that the opposite is also true — is I think typical of the research I did for Babel: often at least somewhat ready-to-hand, a thing I wanted to know more about but not necessarily for a story that then became a story, or, in this case, an essay.

Under I think similar circumstances, I wrote the second fiction, “The Invention of an Island,” after rereading Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, rereading I did because, I think, I’d recommended the book to another writer around that time, though, look, Morel is short and such a pleasure to read that I have reread it often and am always happy to have an excuse to reread it again, and anyway that particular rereading led me to reread H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, and rereading the two together like that led me to write “The Invention of an Island” or made its writing possible in some way. My feelings about rereading The Island of Dr. Moreau are really very different from my feelings about rereading The Invention of Morel; I mean that I like The Island of Dr. Moreau less each time I reread it, not that I’ve reread it much, maybe twice, once for school and once for this fiction, and so, if the reader is now tempted to read it or reread it, may I recommend instead watching the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which, I think, is bound to bring more pleasure than is reading The Island of Dr. Moreau (though it also seems possible I liked the documentary because of some tendency toward schadenfreude in myself that I sincerely hope is not more widely shared)?

The third story in Babel, “La tortue or The Tortoise,” came directly out of a rereading of Jorge Luis Borges’s essays, in particular and most obviously, his “The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise,” but then of course Borges made repeated references to the paradox in his fictions and essays, and it is a paradox that has also much occupied my thoughts since — why not just say it? — freshman philosophy and I’m sure that would have been the case even had I never encountered Borges, though I don’t know how I would have avoided Borges and can’t conceive of wanting such a life for myself.

I make reference to “Rudolph Fentz” in the third fiction, “Fathers and Sons,” a fiction about, in part, missing persons and the effect on their families of their disappearances. Fentz is a character in a story by Jack Finney called “I’m Scared,” about a man, Fentz, who goes missing and turns up many decades in the future, in Times Square, having not aged in the interim, a time traveler, more or less, but an unwitting one, one who’s killed almost immediately after his appearance in what is, for him, the future. I was interested in the story as the seed of an urban legend — proof of time travel! — but not particularly interested in it as a story (as a story, it doesn’t do much to reward interest), and so, apart from the name itself and the idea of a missing man, very little of that research went into “Fathers and Sons,” but that was the germ of the thing, anyway.

“Afterthought,” one of two fictions I wrote exclusively for Babel, really came out of my reading of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, a book my mother sent me for some occasion or another or just for the pleasure she thought it would bring me. I had this thought that incorporating a long summary of the story “Melina” in a fiction of my own was a good idea, something worth doing, so I did it, and then, a year later and not at all with the intention of then using it in this particular fiction, “Afterthought,” a fiction that took me almost two years to finish, I also read Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, and I worry that mentioning this will make it seem, in this context and so near my explanation for the research done on “The Invention of an Island,” as though I often write about stories that have names that are similar to the names of other stories when of course I don’t, but now I’ve mentioned it.

The title story, “Babel,” is based on a story I first heard on the podcast Criminal, about the case of Leon Moore, a conman who took advantage of another man for decades after a completely chance encounter brought the two together. I played very loose with the details of the case, but “Babel” more or less follows its basic outlines. Babble, Babel, a confusion of tongues, is a kind of haphazard usage of phonemes, isn’t it? What I’m saying is that it wouldn’t really be appropriate if there weren’t at least a little jumble here and there in the book, a little slurring and incomprehension between source material and end product.

That said, the book Babel is, please understand, the result of a great deal of care and thought, even, as it turns out, research, but then all of those are concerns of process, and artists are told to take their pleasure in the process because really no one else will — why waste it? — so I mention that only by way of advertisement to any potential readers now wavering in their interest: Babel isn’t an accident! Or, if it is, it’s an accident that took eight years, and, I mean, that’s something, isn’t it?

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Gabriel Blackwell (www.gabrielblackwell.com) is the author of five books, the most recent of which is the collection Babel (Splice, 2020). His next book, CORRECTION, 101 short texts written under constraint, will be published in April, 2021 by Rescue Press. His essays and fictions have appeared in Conjunctions, Tin House, Post Road, Puerto del Sol, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other places. He is the editor of the magazine The Rupture.