Burning Behind the Unnamable: an interview with David F. Hoenigman

by David Moscovich

David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings, dubbed by reviewer Gary J. Shipley “an ultra-minimalist work: each page is a paragraph and each paragraph is devoid of proper names, commas, colons, semi-colons, question marks, dialogue and standard capitalization—apart of course from the all important first-person pronoun.” Indeed, the book eschews a standard format, but the form which remains begs the reader to blur the eyes, step back, and view the work visually, skipping lines as the eye would cast over an atomic mosaic. Everyone has the chance to create their own reading of this anti-novel, as each sentence seems to collapse one over the other, smearing time in favor of fluidity. When I told the author of my tendency to read his book the way one might appreciate a cottonwood grove, allowing the vision to secede naturally from one leaf to another, he said, “Burn Your Belongings is nonprescriptive and meant to be used/read however you see fit, like a roll of duct tape, or anything else you’d buy.”

Hoenigman was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but has lived in Tokyo, Japan since 1998. He is the organizer of the bimonthly PAINT YOUR TEETH event held in Tokyo, a celebration of experimental music, literature and dance, and is currently working on his second novel, Squeal For Joy.


David Moscovich: Sections of Burn Your Belongings could be viewed as a comment on the roboticism or conformity of Japanese, or life in Japan as a second-class citizen or foreigner. For example “ I’m walking through the train station wondering if I’m the only one that’s real. if the rest aren’t made of clay. or merely visions.” Or is this interpretation just superimposing a cultural template on this work?

David F. Hoenigman: I knew that by its nature, Burn Your Belongings could be interpreted in many ways—that’s what I wanted—but the idea of it being critical of the Japanese is something that makes me very uncomfortable. I think most Americans are conformist, so I don’t really feel I’m in a position to get on my high horse about it. What you picked up on is a feeling of distance from the rest of society: I’m trying to show self-discovery. The comments are always from an individual’s point of view.

Although it’s never directly mentioned, Tokyo plays a role in the atmosphere of the book: the hectic lifestyle, on and off trains, always surrounded by people, hearing your neighbor blow his nose through the wall—but I wasn’t trying to criticize Japanese society. I love Tokyo and the surrounding area. The dirty river I mention in the book is a place I still often go to sit and talk with friends. I was happy to see a scene in Shozin Fukui’s 964 Pinocchio that has two of the characters sitting in front of the owl statue in Ikebukuro station—that statue is in my book. Japan’s been my home for ten years. I’m just a negative person at times. I think some of the negativity and distance still would have been there if I’d written the book in Cleveland. When I’m in a certain mood, humanity looks ugly to me, wherever I happen to be living.

DM: How has living as a foreigner in this country affected the language in Burn Your Belongings?

DH: I had made up my mind beforehand that the language would be stripped down. I wanted sparseness, space. In my daily life, people spoke to me in simple English and I spoke to them in simple Japanese—so I suppose my appreciation of a few well-placed basic words would have been at an all-time high. Yes, I think being emerged in choppy, broken speech affected the language I used. I think it added to the sparseness.

DM: Considering the Japanese lexicon, in which the subject is often emitted as superfluous, are you playing off this—highlighting the subject by downplaying it?

DH: Yes, perhaps studying Japanese had an effect. I was thinking about sentence structure a lot, and trying to maintain a certain rhythm throughout the book. Studying a foreign language makes words jump around in your head in new ways. Hopefully I capitalized on that a bit. I wanted to highlight things by leaving them absent. I also had a few Jandek albums I was listening to; I loved how the space in his songs lyrically and musically gave everything a special glow. Not knowing his identity and the album photos added to the creepiness. . . I wanted some of that.

DM: Do you see Beckett’s How It Is as a predecessor and/or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a kindred work?

DH: I’ll have to read How It Is and The Road. It’s been interesting for me. People always bring up stuff I haven’t read yet: Robert Grenier’s “I HATE SPEECH,” Ron Silliman’s Sunset Debris, Pierre Guyotat’sEden, Eden, Eden. I’m happy to be turned on to things. I plan to read them all.

Samuel Beckett was a definite influence, but I had only read Waiting for Godot, Watt and some essays on him before I began to work on Burn Your Belongings. Something about Godot seemed to stay intact in my head. I studied it at school, and watched a TV version with Burgess Meredith. Even though a lot of time had elapsed since then; it was something I thought about a lot. I was intrigued that I didn’t know anything about these characters or the place where this dialogue was unfolding, yet I was spellbound by their interactions. There’s something about the unknown that gives the characters an almost holiness. Recently I’ve been reading the MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable trilogy and I read the biography by Deirdre Bair, but it was Godot that really set me off. I love that something you can read in a single afternoon can change your whole conception of art.

Another influence was Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. I like how the characters would swirl together and you’d have a hard time figuring out who was who, or suddenly a character’s sex would change, or you don’t know if something is actually happening or if it’s in someone’s head. . . Again, it’s the whole idea of not understanding that I find invigorating. It’s almost like Genet is saying you must stop worrying about all the identifiable surface stuff if you hope to grasp what he’s getting at. It’s a question of renouncing the material to understand the spiritual. Burn your belongings.

Another book that I found really inspirational was Randie Lipkin’s Untitled (A Skier). I don’t often see this book mentioned elsewhere and I think it’s a crime. I had reached a point where I had the Burn Your Belongings material ready to go more or less, and I had an idea of how I wanted to put it all together, but I was really beginning to lose faith in the concept of the book. I don’t know. . . something about going through it all with a magnifying glass had my confidence really rattled. I knew that rhythm had to be, must be, a key element to this writing or else the whole thing would fall apart. So I became worried that I was relying too heavily on rhythm to pull me through and may have wasted years on material that was unsalvageable. It was a horrible feeling. Then I read Lipkin’s book. I’d never seen a novel use rhythm and repetition so beautifully—it’s just a soft snow flurry of phrases being repeated in a different order. Maybe a bit more information each time, but turning over the same things again and again, and throwing in something new and then repeating that again a bit later as if it had passed an initiation and been accepted so now could be repeated, and things that are said almost every page, and things that only seem to be repeated two or three times in all. . . Once I finished reading this book, I knew I could finish writing mine.

A bit different from that, but still along those lines for me would be the music of Daniel Johnston. For over 25 years, he’s written dozens and dozens of songs about the same girl who sat next to him in art school. Again and again the same story, the same girl. It’s not even a good story from our perspective—he didn’t get the girl in real life and he never gets her in the songs. Granted, he’s a genius at melody and has tools at his disposal that I don’t, but I think it was an important lesson for me that art can transcend the subject matter. I struggled with writing for a while because I felt I was always writing about the same things; I wanted to write about everyday life but it didn’t seem to change much from day to day. Daniel Johnston taught me not to be afraid to turn the same seashell over and over again in my hand. If the inspiration keeps coming, let it take its course.

DM: You mentioned Beckett as a major influence. With The Unnamable trilogy, the “ I” disappears in a way that Beckett sets up starting with the first two novels. In Burn Your Belongings, it’s more of a consistent play on syntax that lets the eye jump around the book. My reading impulse was not to approach the book from front to back. Was that intentional?

DH: Yes. I’ve always thought it was a cool idea that a book doesn’t need to be read from front to back. I think Henry Miller mentioned that in one of his books, but I’m sure he wasn’t the first or the last. Kenji Siratori told me the same thing about Blood ElectricBurn Your Belongings is nonprescriptive and meant to be used/read however you see fit, like a roll of duct tape, or anything else you’d buy. One guy told me he keeps it on his nightstand and when he’s in a very specific mood he reads exactly one page and puts it down. Another guy told me he only reads it aloud. I got an email from a woman saying

. . . the first 8 pages I read about 4 times to see if my eyes were having games with me. I concluded one night that every third sentence was the main character, and that was the code. And so I read 8 pages only reading every third sentence. . . . so you may be angry as I don’t read in the order I am supposed to.

All this makes me very happy. Start at the front, start at the back, from the middle, hang from your feet like a bat—but I say THANK YOU to whoever takes the time to read it.

Speaking of The Unnamable—I always read that book aloud.

DM: You also mentioned Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, how the characters swirl together and you have a hard time discerning who is who. Genet’s story is being told from a prison cell, and the characters are arguably just a fabrication for the narrator’s entertainment; amongst the characters is a transvestite who changes from He to She. Similarly, the He and the I seem to be not strictly delineated in your novel.

DH: No, they swirl all over the place. Whoever happens to be on my mind. Sometimes it’s memories from childhood. Sometimes it’s a conversation or incident from that day. Though I think you’ll notice She is typically feminine and He is typically masculine in the way they interact with each other—not that I feel people need to adhere to expected roles, I was just writing about my life and it came out that way. Perhaps elements of the relationships I was writing about were somewhat gender typical. Given the challenging layout, I didn’t want the subject matter to be something people wouldn’t recognize. It’s about love, frustration, loneliness, happiness, alienation, redemption. . . Everything that makes us tick.

About Genet, I realize I just glossed over what Our Lady of the Flowers is actually about when I brought it up earlier. I guess I’m just way more into the atmosphere of something than I am its content; the atmosphere is what stays with me.

Burn Your Belongings is an experimental work in the sense that I had no idea what the outcome would be. I had some theories and some things I wanted to try, and I just let it fly from there. I had this idea that if I wrote uninhibitedly about whatever crossed my mind, and if I kept it up for months and years, that some theme or some great truth about myself or about the universe would just emerge out of the writing. Maybe I was trying to psychoanalyze myself; I remember thinking it’d be nice to have some insight into why I’d made the decisions I did, why exactly I was on the other side of the world for one thing. I had a lot of faith in the subconscious and I still do, but as an experiment that might have given me a glimpse into myself I’d have to call the book a failure. No great truth or meaning emerged—what I got was pages and pages of chaos—but I felt it was human, I felt it was something people could relate to. So what failed psychologically had succeeded artistically—the stringent layout was my attempt to present this chaos in a manageable form, like a piece of music.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009