Interstellar Overdrive: an interview with Evan Lavender-Smith


  by Dylan Hicks

With two slim but ambitious books and many short works scattered around literary journals, the poetically named Evan Lavender-Smith has emerged as a writer about whom hype-abused words such asdaring might legitimately apply. Last year’s From Old Notebooks (BlazeVOX, $16) was a hybrid-genre work (a “memiovel” in one of its own proposed classifications) composed of epigrams, anecdotes, confessions, and fragments about, among other things, thanatophobia and pornophilia, epistemology and scatology (he was, at the time of composition, the parent of diapered children), reading and writing and the pleasures and anxieties thereof. Scenes of domestic life both tender and jokey abut philosophical musings both serious and playful, until we seem to glimpse Wittgenstein’s Twitter feed. The book is structurally reminiscent of David Markson’s late novels (an acknowledged influence), mindful of the long epigrammatic tradition that would include, say, La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche, and, in the clarity and wit of its self-consciousness, a more austere cousin of David Foster Wallace’s work.

Lavender-Smith’s new novella, Avatar (Six Gallery Press, $15), is the interior monologue of a person of unspecified name, age, and sex floating in space. More precisely, the narrator (hereafter called N. for these introductory purposes) is floating between two stars, or, N. has feared, not so much floating as “caught right in the middle where the gravities from the two stars [meet] in a tug of war.” (That period is my own; Avatar is one long unpunctuated block of text.) N., understandably insane, increasingly amnesic, endlessly qualifying (“I still feel even now some degree some slight degree of second hand relative confidence,” is as uncertain as we are as to how this space-floating began, only that it’s been going on for “a great number of years,” from the early days when N. was crying tears of boundless loneliness, which tears floated alongside N. and became N.’s “friends,” to a more recent period of trying to think that most impossible thought: nothing.

I reached Lavender-Smith by phone at his office in Las Cruces, where he’s a visiting assistant professor of English at New Mexico State University. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Dylan Hicks: Did you grow up in Las Cruces?

Evan Lavender-Smith: I did. We moved here when I was about nine, and I’ve lived here ever since, with the exception of going off to college in California.

DH: Yeah, I see that you went to Berkeley. And did that precede getting an MFA?

ELS: Yes, that was for undergrad. I had no intention of getting an MFA. I was planning to get a Ph.D, but I was homesick, so I came back here to New Mexico. I was bored, so I took a writing class and enjoyed that, met some people in there who became my friends, ended up taking more writing classes, and eventually accumulated enough credits to qualify for the MFA.

DH: But at some point you must have realized that was happening.

ELS: I did, though I think I denied that it was happening. I’ve always struggled with the idea of an institutionalized writing curriculum, so finding myself engaged in such a thing was a little troubling. But I think its helpfulness outweighed any reservations I might have had about it.

DH: When you say “helpfulness,” do you mean that your fears weren’t particularly realized or that it was subsequently helpful?

ELS: Well, in my case it was very specifically helpful in that I discovered a teacher in Kevin McIlvoy. We just really connected in a powerful way. My thinking about literature, especially with regard to form, has been strongly influenced by him.

DH: This is “Mc” in From Old Notebooks?

ELS: Yes. In some regards he authorized a path for me in which language was prioritized in fiction. That was always a real struggle for me, thinking about the prioritization of language. Does that have a place in fiction? He absolutely confirmed that it did. And I was just so drawn to that idea that I wanted to take more and more classes from him.

DH: Were you a big reader as a teenager? And were you reading pretty sophisticated things?

ELS: I was. That’s when I started reading Pynchon and DeLillo and Barth and Hawkes and Barthelme and Gaddis and all those guys. Also, Kevin McIlvoy was a friend of my parents’, and my mother is an English professor. So I had people who were helping me to navigate this course of reading. It started with DeLillo and Pynchon.

DH: It seems like, having read those writers when you were quite young, you would already be primed to accept the idea of a linguistically driven fiction.

ELS: Yes, that’s a good point, but I don’t know how much of that I was actually perceiving in, say, DeLillo and Pynchon—I don’t think I had the diacritical judgment to perceive their work as being in contrast to another type of writing, or that there were two worlds in contemporary literature. To me it was just fun. It took someone presenting this contrast to me, this argument that has been taking place in contemporary literature for some time. And it wasn’t until many years later that I saw that there was yet another tradition even more language-oriented, the tradition that follows directly from Joyce and Beckett. Of course we feel some of that in DeLillo and those other guys, but I would say that there’s a kind of third tradition that is in some ways just as much in opposition to the DeLillos and the Pynchons as it is to . . . that other nebulous group of writers, those who shall not be named.

DH: So as an undergrad you studied philosophy, is that correct?

ELS: No, this is kind of embarrassing, but—

DH: You have no formal philosophical training whatsoever.

ELS: None at all. I’ve actually never taken a single philosophy course. Which I think may be telling about the state of philosophy in academia nowadays. It seems that, in order to study the kind of philosophy that I’m most interested in—

DH: Which is contemporary European philosophy?

ELS: Yes. I mean, I wasn’t very interested in philosophy when I was at Berkeley, but had I been, if I’d wanted to study Deleuze, I probably would have ended up doing so in the English department. I had friends at Berkeley who were studying philosophy with Hubert Dreyfus, a famous Heideggerian philosopher who wrote a seminal book called Being-in-the-World. I didn’t even know what they were talking about. Now I quite regret that, because it was a rare opportunity that I missed. But no, I’ve never had any training; it’s all come to me rather late. I was quite afraid of philosophy for a very long time, and finally just kind of abandoned myself to it in my mid-twenties. That was an important moment for me.

DH: How so?

ELS: Well, despite having felt in Pynchon and DeLillo a fanciful relationship to language—and I think also to philosophy—I never felt that a pathway in fiction was available in which philosophy bore heavily. I’d never had the confidence to do something like that until I began seriously reading philosophy. Maybe this is largely about confidence: Kevin McIlvoy instilling in me the confidence to pay attention to language, and Brian Evenson making me feel that it was okay to pay attention to philosophy and feel confident about combining my interests in philosophy and fiction in some way.

DH: To not feel like an amateur—or perhaps you want to retain some of that.

ELS: I think I do, yes. When I think about the professional philosopher, my stomach turns. But there is a kind of armchair philosophizing that is really provocative to me, and as a fiction writer—whatever that means—I very consciously look for opportunities to do a little armchair philosophizing.

DH: The recent book has an epigraph from Kierkegaard, and the previous book has one from Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein plays a role in both, so it seems you’re attracted to philosophers who are also gifted writers, or in philosophy that’s linguistically driven or has a poetic sensibility. Is that fair to say?

ELS: I think so. However, a philosopher I grew very interested in a couple years ago is Alain Badiou, and he argues very forcefully that the poeticization of philosophy has been to philosophy’s detriment. And at least in the context of Badiou’s ontology, I think that’s very accurate. I’m interested in reading many different kinds of philosophy, but when writing From Old Notebooks I was particularly interested in a kind of philosophy that would emerge from narrative. I think that Kierkegaard was up to something quite similar; I think that Nietzsche was too, at least occasionally. I don’t know if narrative is quite the right word. I might say a philosophy that is engaged with formal affects; the art form itself produces affects and percepts that are verging on concepts, the stuff of philosophy. I’m really interested in that possibility, but I don’t know how rigorous it can be. When I think back on From Old Notebooks, I fear that the effects of the book finally aren’t as thoroughly rigorous as the effects of philosophy. They aren’t as intellectually bracing, I suppose. Maybe it’s just something I’m incapable of. But the thought of producing new concepts is a big goal for me, as I imagine it is for many serious thinkers—I don’t mean to call myself a serious thinker, because I’m actually quite a playful thinker. But I wonder if that’s something that can be done through narrative and prose. It’s something I’m constantly thinking of; it was something I was going for in Avatar as well.

DH: From Old Notebooks is kind of an audacious first book: a debut by an obscure writer that asks readers to care about things they might think unremarkable, such as your domestic life. I find the book very engaging, but I was also sort of puzzled by how it managed this, because, taken out of context, some of the items could easily be, say, a Facebook entry. And then there’s also this high intellectual aspect put into that stew. You talk in the book about your self-consciousness about the project’s potential vanity—it seems that you must have been quite anxious while writing it.

ELS: I think the book acknowledging its own audacity is a way for it to appear less audacious; the book attempts to preempt a reading in which someone points at it and says, “That’s too audacious for a first book.” I do think it’s too audacious in some respect. I think I would probably say that about Avatar as well. There’s almost a self-conscious positioning of the work within very serious trajectories of writing, canonical trajectories. I don’t know what to say about that. Now I’ll read from From Old Notebooks and think, Oh, God, Evan, who do you think you are? But those thoughts were very true at that moment. I feel very passionately about whatever it is I’m writing, generally, and I feel very serious about whatever it is that I’m writing, maybe a bit too serious. I think some of these lessons of postmodernism have been lost on me. I still have this decidedly modernist outlook on the position of the author in relation to the work, and in society at large—that the author is an important force for artistic creation, even for change. So when I inhabit this persona of the author, especially in the writing I do that is more self-reflexive, I think that idea of the author comes through. It’s something of an antiquated notion of the role and the power of the author, but it’s one that for whatever reason I can’t quite shake.

DH: I was just reading John Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” an essay from 1967. He would be considered a quintessential postmodernist, but he aligns himself with this same sort of modernist idea of the author’s power, of championing the work that very few people could do.

ELS: Yes, I feel that in Barth. I feel something in that essay particularly, a kind of riven quality about the argument. He seems to retain a modernist outlook on the role of the author while making what is something like, as you say, the quintessential postmodernist argument about literature and writing. I feel very close to that essay in many respects.

DH: From Old Notebooks is full of ideas for stories, essays, screenplays, and poems—the sort of ideas people jot down, after all, in notebooks. One, from the last page, is: “Epic poem in which hero floats between two stars—one in front, one behind,” which obviously became Avatar. What most attracted you to this idea, and what were the chief technical problems you encountered while writing it?

ELS: Well, a consciousness alone with its own process of thought is the material I return to most often, and Avatar was an attempt to strip down that scenario to its most basic elements—in this case someone or something that is in the middle of nowhere with almost no stimuli. It feels like it’s paradigmatic of the material that is closest to me. I look back on those two books and I see that similarity in particular, a consciousness that is questioning the nature of consciousness itself through some form of narrative. So that’s where it originated, with that impulse to get a consciousness completely alone. And then the technical complications were many. The book went through many formal iterations, including ones in which there was very little white space, and later iterations in which it looked more like composition by field. In its current iteration I struggled with simply reading the thing over and over and over, which is something I do—I try to barrage my consciousness with the writing. It was difficult just to read it, and it remains difficult.

DH: Difficult emotionally, or . . . ?

ELS: Kind of tedious, I’d say. The absence of punctuation creates a certain demand on the reader that might not otherwise be there. I don’t feel compelled to return to the book the way I do, say, From Old Notebooks. I enjoy taking up From Old Notebooks and reading something at random; there’s a certain belletristic quality about it that I enjoy and am kind of amused by. I don’t quite feel that way withAvatar. When I see the book on my desk, I nudge it even farther away. It feels almost like a violence on me when I try to read it.

DH: Another fragment from From Old Notebooks that you just gave me an occasion to bring up simply reads: “My tumultuous relationship with the semicolon.” Avatar is, I suppose, a kind of trial separation from semicolons, and from all punctuation. I’m wondering when that decision was reached, especially considering how second-guessing the narrator is—conventionally punctuated, the book might’ve been a Jamesian sea of commas and em-dashes and what have you.

ELS: It was a decision that was made in the moment of the work’s inception. The voice and the form were one thing from the beginning: “I am floating between two stars just floating one in front one behind.” The voice emerged without punctuation in my mind. It never contained punctuation. It did, at an early moment, do certain things with white space in order to control pace, but that was quite laborious to maintain and finally, I think, offered very little benefit. In my shifting around the white spaces I began to see the book without any punctuation or simulation of punctuation, and for whatever reason that felt most organic to this voice. I do think that there could be a tendency for a reader to project punctuation in his or her reading experience. Is that something that you did while reading it?

DH: There were a few repetitions that worked like a period, and a few miscues that would normally be resolved by punctuation, but after a few pages I felt I was pretty much in its rhythm. I would note the absence of an apostrophe after a possessive, so I guess that by noting it I was putting it there. I may have been thinking too literally—this kind of relates to the punctuation thing—but in the early parts of the book I was trying to figure out how old the narrator might be, trying to place it in time. There are some semi-antiquated words and phrases in the book—like “all this while,” “upon,” “atop,” “for” in the sense of “because” —I mean, these are not Elizabethan words or anything, but maybe those and the absence of contractions put me in mind of a somewhat elderly narrator. But then it’s revealed that the narrator is wearing Air Jordans, so I imagined the narrator as having been, at some point after the mid-1980s, an American teenager—except one who speaks in this language that seems a little older, kind of Continental. Maybe that’s just me inserting voices from other books—the book is sometimes very wittily circular in that Thomas Bernhard way, for instance. But that was one of the interesting parts of the book for me, this hard-to-place tone, matched with a figure that in my imagination was not unlike myself.

ELS: I think that’s very accurate. The paradoxical quality of the voice that you mention is something I find myself doing in the more conventional fiction I’ve written, especially the short stories. It often involves a folding over of narrative distance in some way, where the voice of the child and the retrospective voice of the adult are somehow telescoped into one paradoxical voice. In Avatar particularly the book does present a timeless, or even an untimely, quality, yet it’s still littered with references—like Air Jordans and baseball cards—that might serve to locate it in time. I suppose I imagine those as cracks in something like a timeless regime of representation, a quality that we might associate with some of Beckett; I feel some of his narrators are outside of time. But yes, I think Avatar is after a paradoxical treatment of time. There’s a certain reading of it by which the speaker or thinker is revealed as being thousands or even millions of years old. That is

contrasted with a childlike voice, occasionally a childlike voice, and at least occasionally a more Continental voice, as you describe it.

DH: I happened to read Avatar around the time I went to an exhibition here in Minneapolis of Yves Klein’s work, much of which attempted, at least in his sometimes coy rhetoric, to deal with the void. That seemed appropriate to me since Avatar is very much concerned with emptiness, nothingness, with types of nothing that are in fact something or become something, and I guess with the challenge or impossibility of emptying one’s mind. Were there particular books or even meditative practices that informed your treatment of this stuff?

ELS: Well, I don’t know that there were. I guess perhaps both Being and Time and Critique of Pure Reason are books I return to in my own mind when I think about thinking, when I think about presenting a rigorous image of thought. I do think that that’s what Avatar finally is: an attempt to present a truly rigorous image of thought, and to me the best way to go about that is to attempt to show a mind struggling with the extremes of its own process. Is there such a thing as a thought of nothing? Is that a worthwhile goal? Is that a goal that would come about for this narrator in that position? I think so; it felt quite appropriate to me. But also these formal correspondences suggested by the novel became quite important to me, the formal correspondence between a thought of the void and the void itself—he doesn’t have the void as a realistic material option in his world, but he does have the thought of the void. (I’m saying “his,” though the novel goes out of its way to avoid gender specificity.) I think the book is concerned in some way with this formal displacement, which is language standing in place for materiality, a condition of his world. I remain very interested in placing characters up against their perception of nothing and nothingness, and the impossibility of such perception. I don’t know why I’m drawn to that; I suppose it’s something I do in my own thinking. I’m eager to sort of figure it out, and the way that I tend to figure out my own thoughts about life and death is to sort of perform them in my writing.

DH: There’s a thanatophobia at work in From Old Notebooks that seems to relate to Avatar, in that one could imagine the narrator’s situation as an afterlife. Perhaps you didn’t, but I guess I did, when thinking, what might this be?

ELS: Well, it’s an important question: To what extent does the book invite that? It’s a question that, at a late point in the composition of the book, concerned me: Is a reader going to be willing to accept the immanent terms of this world without attempting to apply a hermeneutics that’s looking for transcendent meaning? And of course it’s impossible for me to say. I did, at a late point, consider the space of the novel as the space of purgatory, but of course your reading is just as valid as mine.

DH: Does that jibe with your earlier statement about the power of the author?

ELS: No, it does not.

DH: There’s a recurrent phrase in the book— “quarter of a fingernail” —that I confess I don’t entirely understand. I thought for a while it was the narrator’s description of how big the star he’s floating toward looks, but then I thought other things as well, all fairly prosaic.

ELS: Yes, that was the intention: a measurement of the star. But I think also his body becomes quite important.

DH: Right—the funniest parts of the book for me were the discussions of friendship and reciprocity with respect, for instance, to his arm potentially being one of his friends.

ELS: Yes, this strange objectification of his own body is something like the comic relief of the book. It’s a pitiful humor. I do find myself laughing at him in his miserable existence—not unlike the way I laugh at characters in Beckett, with their sucking stones or whatever.

DH: Can you talk just a bit about the title? When I first saw the book I was reminded, because of the film Avatar, of how the Replacements’ Let It Be playfully echoes the Beatles’ like-titled album—the distinction being that I happen to love both Let It Be albums, but only your book in the case at hand. So I’m wondering if the title preceded the film. The title seems to suggest allegorical readings.

ELS: The title did present a problem for me when I learned of Cameron’s film. But I went and saw the film, and I didn’t really like it at all, so I decided to retain the original title. Perhaps if I’d liked the movie, I would have changed the title. It’s a difficult question for me. I’d heard the word avatar for years, but I think I first encountered it in print in Ellmann’s biography of Joyce. The young Joyce is meeting someone for the first time, I think it’s a famous poet, and he says, “There’s an avatar in Ireland.” He’s referring to himself, and I didn’t quite get his use of the word. The word consequently existed in my memory in an ambiguous capacity.

DH: He was using it cheekily as a “god come to earth,” I take it.

ELS: Yes, I think so. But of course the word is now in common usage in reference to the substitution of a figure for a person, say, on the Internet. I suppose these various meanings and associations of the word sort of colluded to produce, for me, an image of a word disassociated from a stable meaning, and so I think in a certain early moment I simply called it Avatar for that reason, and then subsequently, through the writing of the book, I began to feel other vague associations between the word and the narrative sitting there beneath the word. I think the sound of the word carries with it certain associations—an association of flight, for me, that I don’t think follows from the word’s etymology.

DH: Did you happen to see Ed Park’s essay in a recent New York Times Book Review about the one-sentence novel?

ELS: I didn’t.

DH: It was just a back-page thing in praise of the one-sentence novel. So I guess I thought of Avatar as being potentially Zeitgeisty. I’m not sure if you consider it a one-sentence novel; it’s almost a part of an endless sentence.

ELS: Right. I think that that was actually an important way for me to imagine the form of the novel, especially at an early moment in its composition, as a fragment from something endless. I maybe lost sight of that through its composition—in my attempt to provide the narrative with a kind of shapeliness that would be perceived as a real contrivance if in fact this were simply an excerpt. Or maybe it was an excerpt that was selected on account of its shapeliness. Likewise, at an early moment I imagined this being printed on a scroll, and this being almost like a section torn out from the scroll, and that’s what’s been presented to us.

DH: This last question may be unwieldy, but you talked about your interest in trying to deal seriously with consciousness, and I know you’ve studied Joyce. So when you’re writing and revising, what sort of things are you mindful of in terms of the ever-present challenge of trying to represent consciousness while at the same time dealing with a linguistic presentation that also seeks to be art, and may as such be distancing from the thing you’re trying to get at, but may also be clarifying . . . this question is so huge that now I’m regretting having even—

ELS: No, this is exactly the sort of thing I think about. Something that I seem to have to do, and I recall doing this with both of these books, is to get my thinking as the writer and the thinking presented by the book to achieve an alignment, so we become one and the same thing for a certain duration. It’s a great challenge. With Avatar it involved reading the book over and over and over and over until my thoughts were very much proceeding in the manner of this narrator’s, so that I could return to the book and the voice was right there. There was little distinction between my own thoughts and this insane narrator’s thoughts, which was quite scary. In both books, this process of a consciousness looping back on itself is repeatedly performed—very self-reflexively in From Old Notebooks, perhaps less self-reflexively inAvatar, although it is still a consciousness constantly returning to its own process. So that seems to be the way I deal with representing thought—I have to become it. I’ve likened it to method acting.

DH: It seems analogous to what a more traditional fiction writer would say about getting inside the character.

ELS: I suppose it is, but thinking about my writing as containing a cast of concepts, rather than a cast of characters, has been important to me. When I think about inhabiting my fiction, I tend to think about inhabiting forms and concepts rather than characters.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011