Research Notes · 09/27/2013

The Facades

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Eric Lundgren writes about his novel The Facades, out now from Overlook Press.

+

My first novel, The Facades, was researched in a highly haphazard way. Now that I’m out on the reading circuit, I have recurrent fears of encountering a true expert on one of the subjects the book touches on, such as opera. This imagined expert always sits in the back row, leather satchel coolly at her feet, and rises at some point to call me out for my limited and superficial treatment of her area of expertise — i.e. she exposes me as a terrible fraud in front of a large audience (that large audience being the most obvious indicator of how delusional the writer’s mind can be).

Writing this piece for the Research Notes series, I’m tempted to do additional research, to make my process seem more rigorous than it actually was. But it seems better — perhaps more interesting — to attempt a subjective account of how reading influenced the novel.

The origins of this book reach back as far as my undergraduate years, when I spurned Friday night parties for the womby silence of the Aubrey Watzek Library at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. One of the books I read on those lonely Friday nights was Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Without understanding much, I was deeply struck by Wittgenstein’s ruthless harassment of common phrases and conventional thought. One particular passage stuck with me through the years: a thought experiment about a man who suffers a very specific physical pain which he records in his journal with the letter S every time he experiences it. When the journal is discovered after the man’s death, no one knows how to interpret the recurrent appearances of the letter S in the man’s diary. This is Wittgenstein’s attempt to disprove the concept of a private language, but it also struck me as a poignant account of the writing process. No one will know exactly what you meant or what you felt as you wrote.

Another major component of the novel was architecture, specifically the buildings of Klaus Bernhard, a fictional architect I modelled loosely on Victor Gruen. Gruen was a pioneering architect of shopping malls, including one near Minneapolis called Southdale, the first mall I visited as a child. I was fascinated to learn about Gruen’s life as documented in M. Jeffrey Hardwick’s excellent biography Mall Maker. A student at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, who was involved in avant-garde cabaret theater in Weimar Germany, Gruen brought socialist ideals to the construction of his mid-century enclosed malls, which he imagined as cultural centers, where symphonies and lectures would be held, enlightening the residents of the elegantly planned communities surrounding them. He returned to Vienna late in his life, deeply disillusioned by the actuality of American suburbia. I give all this skeletal biography to the character Klaus Bernhard in The Facades, though I take great liberties with both his buildings and his personal life, adding an element of pure fantasy.

Speaking of which, it would be wrong to omit mention of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, from which I take Trude, the name of the fictional Midwestern city at the heart of the novel. Trude, a disorienting, continuous city which causes déjà vu, which does not begin and does not end, where “only the name of the airport changes,” is hardly one of the more dazzling cities in Calvino’s book. However, it struck me as a great metaphor for the Midwest, because so many people see it as a undistinguished flyover blob, don’t discriminate between Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis (the city where I have lived since 2004). As it turned out, the editor who acquired the novel at Overlook Press had studied Calvino in college, and loved the connection to Trude, so this was perhaps my most felicitous reference.

The Facades is, I hope in the best way, the work of an amateur. As I first novelist, I wrote with the excitement of discovering the potential of the form, and one of the form’s best qualities is that it can fold in so much outside material and reference. Maybe if I’m lucky a few others will pass through this book on the way to Calvino, or Daniel Paul Schreber’s harrowing and unexpectedly funny Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, or the works of Wittgenstein. I’m delighted to acknowledge my influences, and have never understood writers who claim not to read while they’re writing. What a terrible plight! Novel-writing for me is partially an excuse to buy and read a great number of books, many of them only tangentially related to the project, as my wife, whose own thoughts about buildings and cities were a great resource throughout the writing of this novel, will attest.

+

Eric Lundgren grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he turned to reading as a survival method in the winters. He attended Lewis & Clark College and studied at the Writing Program at Washington University, where he was awarded a third-year fellowship. His writing has appeared in Tin House, Quarterly West, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Millions. The Facades is his first novel. He works at a 100-year-old public library in St. Louis, where he lives with his wife Eleanor and their two cats.