Your story “The Hollow” follows a rekindled connection between two former college classmates: Jack, who has moved to the country and abruptly lost his high-powered job and his relationship, and Valente, a bumbling, overly earnest would-be artist and former football player who is living with his mother. How did these two characters come to you? What was the appeal in having their story lines intersect?
Stories begin as intuitions. You usually understand your motives only in hindsight. I had Jack in the house, I needed someone for him to engage with, and an old story about a college football player who quit to take up painting came back to me. That was the seed that germinated into the character of Valente—a foil to Jack, and something more than a foil. The characters and the story then grew up around one another like vines.
That’s how it happened. The answer born of hindsight involves an interest in exploring the tension between bourgeois and bohemian existence: a life within the grooves of society and the outsider life of an artist. Of course it’s more complex than that, since most artists aren’t really outsiders but somewhat alienated or peculiar insiders—products of the upper middle class, or at least of its values and institutions. Bohemianism is a local equilibrium within bourgeois society. Without the bourgeoisie’s staid and starchy mores, there is no bohemia. Louis Menand, in his new book, “The Free World,” writes that Lionel Trilling saw his former student Allen Ginsberg, like Ginsberg’s idol, Rimbaud, as bound to the same conventional world he rebelled against, since his rebellion was shaped in opposition to it. There’s certainly truth to this. The Beats, like bohemians, like the downtown artists of the seventies or eighties, were more tightly enmeshed in society’s dominant fabric than their repudiation of its values suggests.
Nonetheless, I think there’s an energy in Valente that one doesn’t find in Jack. We all have to decide for ourselves—in how we choose to live and whom we surround ourselves with—how much of this energy we want (or can bear) in our own lives. Besides which, being a true “outsider” comes with no guarantee of privileged vision. The myths about artistic genius that spring up around figures like Rimbaud and van Gogh suggest that uncompromising perversity is a necessary and sufficient condition for greatness. Clearly, it isn’t sufficient. It may not even always be necessary. But, all the same, there is something in perversity, weirdness, extremity—the artist’s longing to explode the bourgeois world that at least partly created her—that represents a longing for real freedom, I think, a spiritual freedom that life doesn’t often afford, and, along with our occasional feelings of threat, disgust, or unease, I believe we must all feel some measure of gratitude for those who don’t, can’t, or won’t play society’s stultifying game. They open up space for the rest of us.
Jack resists having a genuine friendship with Valente. He feels that Valente isn’t cool and will never have “sufficient self-awareness.” Do you agree? Does Jack have sufficient self-awareness to be a friend to someone else? Is he just an élitist?
It is, I think, manifestly the case that Valente doesn’t have the self-awareness that permits a person like Jack to fit into the social world—a world of postures and appearances that communicate to others that you belong in certain settings and milieus. The question isn’t whether Valente is self-aware; the question is to what extent we should value the sort of self-awareness that Valente lacks. Do we overvalue this facility at fitting in, what we might refer to, at different moments, as sophistication or snobbery or social grace? Or are we missing something important about it if we simply write it off as pretension?
I’m not trying to pose leading questions. I think the tensions implicit in these questions are harder to resolve than we generally admit. For instance, it’s fine to call Jack an “élitist.” From afar, we pass judgments like this on people like Jack all the time. But I daresay that we often act like Jack in our own lives, and that many people inclined to call Jack an élitist would treat Valente much as he does, or might never get close enough to someone like Valente to feel the challenge that a difficult or uncouth person can pose to their understanding of themselves as tolerant and open-minded. When we express disdain for characters in fiction, saying “I don’t like this character,” he’s a “bad person,” or she’s an “unlikable woman,” it is almost always a way of saying in public, “Don’t confuse this character’s inner life or motives with mine!” At the very least, it allows us a public pretense of “goodness” that has little, really, to do with the human heart. Because there’s no point in reviling a legitimately “bad” character: no one would say “I’m not sure I like Colonel Kurtz” or “I don’t think the Misfit is such a good guy.” The impulse to disparage a character arises from the character’s proximity to us and our lives.
The truth, as far as I’m concerned, is that most of us are committed to hiding our selves from view and doing everything we can to be seen positively by the world. We fit in, and we fit in because it’s important to us to fit in. Were Jack to read this story among his peers, he would likely join the chorus of those condemning the character Jack for élitism, for acting horribly superior to Valente, and for being incapable of real friendship or fellowship—and then Jack (the reader) and his peers would go back to not giving people like Valente the time of day. And it makes a certain sense. I’m not trying to say that this is easy or simple, or that the answer is simply to blame Jack (the character) for élitism and Jack (the reader) for hypocrisy, and then commend ourselves for our broadmindedness and how much not like Jack we are. My point is that we are like Jack! And, who knows, maybe there’s someone in Valente’s life whom he treats the way Jack treats him. (He certainly isn’t kind about the paintings at the art-fair stall where he’s working!) People behave as they do for reasons, and the reasons—the complex matrix of considerations that resolve into behavior—are far more interesting, I think, than passing moral judgment and signalling one’s enlightenment in public. In the end, the person who extricates himself from the performance of social norms, in the interest of realizing himself more organically, might turn out—at least in the eyes of others—to be a sort of grotesque, like Gregor Samsa, looked upon with horror by the bourgeois world into which he was born.