The Path of Totality: Illuminating THE DISINTEGRATIONS

On August 21, the United States experienced its first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in almost one hundred years. The next day, August 22, we officially published Alistair McCartney’s new novel The Disintegrations. Here, McCartney reflects on the eclipse and other books that inspired his.

During the recent eclipse, the moon or its shadow blocked the sun; in some places that lay in the so-called path of totality, it did so completely, for up to two and half minutes.

When I found out the official publication date for The Disintegrations was the day after the solar eclipse, it struck me as a good omen. On further reflection, it also struck me as appropriate: this is a book about a guy who’s trying to unravel the secret of death, a book that aims to cloak the reader in at least partial, temporary darkness.

The process of writing The Disintegrations was long and arduous. It took me about nine years to realize the book. The challenges this novel presented were related to content—writing about death and the dead is an impossible task—but form was also a challenge, as I tried to figure out the right structure to hold together the pieces I was assembling.

Like most writers, I turned to other books while attempting to solve this aesthetic problem. These eleven books helped me figure it out, placed me in their path of totality, their shadows providing a source of illumination.

Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972; Translator Ralph Mannheim, 1975.
I first read this novella from Handke as a student in the late 1990s, and it floored me, in particular this Austrian author’s ability to write about the suicide of his mother with such objectivity: “My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks: I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away, and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.” (199).

One of the main struggles I encountered in writing The Disintegrations was finding the right voice and tone to articulate death, one that didn’t make my skin crawl. I re-read A Sorrow and it acted as a signpost for me, to help me locate that register. Although my book springs from nonfiction—all my writing does—through my point of view, it becomes fiction. Handke’s definition of fiction in an interview from 1980 resonates deeply with me: “[My novels] are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction.”

Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence, 1948; Translator Lydia Davis, 1976.
I was already well into writing The Disintegrations (which for years I was calling The Death Book) when I read the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s miraculous little novel (or récit) Death Sentence.  Like Handke’s novella it’s less than one hundred pages. Blanchot’s strange, crystalline perspective on death, thanks to Lydia Davis’ incredible translation, was essential:  “These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth” (1).

I reread this book about a year later, to keep learning how to write my own book. Like all astonishing books, it continued both to teach me and to elude me. Its style, both simple and ambiguous, was crucial as I forged my own style. The compression of Blanchot’s work guided me in radically compressing my own book from a much longer draft. (Earlier versions were three times as long as the “final” product.)  Blanchot wrote not novels but récits, which is what The Disintegrations is: a book where the author and narrator are one and the same, a self-reflexive book that is as much about what cannot be told as what can, a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction. As Lars Iyer writes in “Blanchot, Narration, and The Event,” a “récit would interrupt both the assurance of the novelist who creates and preserves a world and also the assurance of the reader, for whom the world the novel imitates is the same world he or she inhabits.” More than any other writer, Blanchot showed me how to write from a place of impossibility: the impossibility of representing or writing (about) death, the impossibility of representing anything.

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, 1886; translator John Ashbery, 2011.
I’ve loved the Illuminations since I was a teenager, rereading the Louise Varese translation almost every year. Rimbaud is in my bloodstream. For my fortieth birthday, my friend David Schweizer gave me a copy of the new Ashbery translation of Rimbaud, and it reignited my relationship to this beloved book. Although thematically The Disintegrations is perhaps more my version of A Season in Hell, if you look at any of the less narrative-driven chapters such as “A Hole in the World” or “Disintegration” or “Data” or “Odors” or “Immortality,” you see the trace of Rimbaud’s prose poems throughout this book. I am , if truth be told, a poet who disguises himself as a prose writer. You also see this majestic book’s influence in the title, The Disintegrations, a phrase which, when I hit upon it, struck me as the dark mirror image of the Illuminations. Throughout this book, my narrator finds himself in an inverted mode of astonishment, a negative state of wonder.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 1975; Translator Jonathan Griffin, 1977.
My initial “finished” draft of the book was written in a much more straightforward, linear manner (or, at least, my version of linear). Of course, I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the draft that this is not the kind of novel I should be writing. I did a radical revision last year, gutting the book, re-tuning the voice, rewiring the apparatus. Blanchot’s notion of the récit helped me realize this. So did the great filmmaker Robert Bresson’s summary of the non-linear nature of the aesthetic process:  “My movie [book] is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film [in the book] but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen [the page], come to life again, like flowers in water.” (p. 23)

Although I would not have minded getting to the final version sooner, Bresson’s characterization of the process as a dialectic of creation and destruction gave a logic to my own drawn-out process in which I built the book, destroyed it, then reordered it into what it was meant to be.

Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” in Against Interpretation, 1966.
Following the major revision, which was profoundly liberating (the only “easy” stage of writing this book), I did a line edit that was far more excruciating. I’d get up at 4 a.m. in the February dark, so I had time before I went to work. I was especially struggling with one of the stories “Eun Kang and the Ocean.” Robert Bresson’s films Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably had been essential for me at various stages of writing, in ways that I can’t put into words, something to do with their purity, their directness and indirectness, their formal coolness, and I found myself reading Sontag’s essay on his films in Against Interpretation (one of my favorite books ever) to help me articulate the power of Bresson’s work: “The emotional distance typical of Bresson’s films seems to exist for a different reason altogether: because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence—an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.” (181). Reading this allowed me to continue narrating Eun Kang’s story, to sustain a detachment to my subject, and to strive towards my perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

My perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.
Although European writers are my primary source of inspiration, in some ways I think of The Disintegrations as my American book. I first read The Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent when one of my older sisters passed it on to me. In Australia, at least in the 1980s, Catcher wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous or canonical as it is here in the States. Anyway, I found myself rereading it fairly early on in writing The Disintegrations, and I was astonished by the book, how complex and perverse it is beneath a seemingly simple narrative. And of course, there’s the purity of the voice of the adorable Holden Caulfield, whom I continue to have a big crush on. Needless to say Catcher was a major influence on The Disintegrations, an influence I had to tone down, pull back on, distort, even reject, as I was striving for a less intimate effect and a less forthcoming voice. But the ghost of Salinger and Holden Caulfield is still in The Disintegrations, especially in the sections “The Weight”, “Chris, a Recipe”, and “How to Dispose of Me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or,The Whale, 1851.
While we’re on the subject of American classics, Moby Dick also cast its spell on me during the writing process, just as it has cast its spell on so many writers. In that earlier, much lengthier draft—which incidentally was titled The Death Book; or, The Disintegrations in homage to Melville’s title—I had a bunch of epigraphs on death, just like the “Extracts” section of quotes about whales in Melville’s novel, and I included this line from Melville himself: “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of life and death” (p 42). Luckily I saw reason. To try to write one’s own Moby Dick is a quest as futile and full of hubris as Captain Ahab’s. I realized the goal of my death book was far more modest. But Melville continued to inspire me. The Disintegrations remains a book about a guy as single-minded as Ahab and as solitary as Ishmael, on a dangerous quest to find the unknowable. Melville’s (or Ishmael’s) assertion that we’ve gotten the life-death equation wrong is a major theme in the narrative. And Melville’s glorious chapter headings and the book’s protean form can absolutely be seen in the structure I ended up employing to articulate the ineffable.

Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer, 1977.
Joan Didion is one of my favorite living American writers. The Disintegrations owes so much to her astringent, acute perspective on the interplay between sunshine and death in California. I love her nonfiction but also her fiction. Apart from the voice and tone, the major difficulty with writing my own book was coming up with a structure to contain the fragments. When I undertook that radical revision, restructuring the linear narrative I’d created, Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer was so instructive as a model of how to do this. Didion’s organic, fugue-like composition, her use of repetition and recurring motifs, and the cool, precise use of first person, really showed me how to tap into my own narrative fugue.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights, 1848; Translator Alan Myers, 1995.
I was pretty aware of the influences on this work as I wrote, but one that took me by surprise was “White Nights,” an early short story of Dostoevsky’s. I’d read it a long time ago and picked it up to reread. I was struck not only by how beautiful it is but also by how much the story inspired The Disintegrations. “White Nights” tells the story of a lonely guy in Saint Petersburg who wanders around at night, who thinks too much, and who meets a young woman he falls in love with, but who can’t love him back. (Incidentally, Bresson’s Four Nights is a retelling of this book.)

The more straightforward version of The Disintegrations saw my narrator wandering around the cemetery with an unnamed companion, telling him all his ideas about death. As I mentioned, I had to do away with that artifice, but Dostoevsky’s discursive, philosophical, morbid, dreamy tone is still very much at play in what you’re reading—see the chapter “An Encounter” as an example. Like his narrator, mine is similarly “oppressed by such strange thoughts, such gloomy sensations; questions still so obscure to me are crowding into my brain and I seem to have neither power nor will to settle them” (33).  The Disintegrations may appear to be unconventional, but in many ways it’s quite old-fashioned, a nineteenth-century novel of ideas rewired for this century. Dostoevsky is one of those writers who have been with me since I was a teenager and follow me around whether I like it or not.

Dennis Cooper, The Marbled Swarm, 2011.
For me, Cooper is up there with Didion as one of the greatest living American writers. I’ve read all his novels. He’s one of the few contemporary American writers who create absolute fictive worlds; by this I mean a book that is placed under the extreme pressure of the author’s totalizing vision—the outside world no longer matters. These are the kinds of books I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. The Marbled Swarm has this propulsive narrative rhythm to it that was really important to me as I constructed my book’s own idiosyncratic rhythm. I was thinking a lot about my narrator’s secrets, what he reveals, what he doesn’t reveal, what’s unknown to him, what is untellable. Cooper’s masterful work, and its ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic focus on concealment, was a guiding light.

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, 1992; translator Michael Hulse, 1996.
I discovered Sebald’s work as an MFA student in the late 1990s. Like so many readers, I was immediately bewitched; I devoured all his books. He died during my final MFA residency, while I was rereading The Rings of Saturn. But it’s The Emigrants, the first of his books that I read, that has stayed with me the most: the delicacy and obliqueness with which he approaches the Holocaust. And of course his amazing fusion of genres—each book an alchemical combination of fiction, memoir, travelogue, history and biography—as well as his deft combining of the traditional and the experimental.

Sebald is one of those writers that I think you don’t want to get too close to, aesthetically. His work is so singular that to be too influenced by it, at least literally, would just result in a pale imitation. I work in an entirely different register, yet my blurring of genres in The Disintegrations—fiction and nonfiction, story and eulogy, poetry and obituary—owes so much to Sebald, as does the  book’s voice and tone in which I try to tread lightly. The trace of his voice, still so strong sixteen years after his death, can be seen in a story like “Aino’s Song”, especially the character of Herta, as well as “My Grandfather’s Hemorrhage.”

Alistair McCartney

Alistair McCartney is the author of The End of the World Book, a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White debut fiction award. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and oversees their undergraduate creative writing concentration. Born in Australia, he lives in Venice, California.

 

3 comments

  1. You wrote a very nice Article, Alistair McCartney. I have read about Moby Dick. I ordered for it after seeing it in a movie featuring Will Smith. Thank you once more for that collection

  2. For me, Cooper is up there with Didion as one of the greatest living American writers. I’ve read all his novels. He’s one of the few contemporary American writers who create absolute fictive worlds; by this I mean a book that is placed under the extreme pressure of the author’s totalizing vision—the outside world no longer matters.

Leave a Reply to Damian Bello Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *