Editor’s Note: Atticus Books publisher Dan Cafaro recently contacted novelist Lee Klein in search of content for the Atticus website. He asked Lee if he would be interested in delivering a free-form self-interview, with a creative nod to The Nervous Breakdown, which has used the form to great effect. Lee was warm to the idea, partly because he felt a bit sorry for Dan, but mainly because a self-interview is the ultimate manifestation of navel-gazing … without actually sticking your nose or mouth where it doesn’t belong. That act, it seems, is reserved for the greatest physical form of navel-gazing, which Lee describes, with little restraint, below.
It’s a mirage. Everyone relies on everyone else. I’m reliant on the authors, editors, publishers, booksellers, and readers who create, distribute, and discuss books that make their way over the years to me, that in turn feed what I work on, not to mention everyone on the street and in the news, online and off, who influence who I am and what I do.
At best I write like a machine, I disappear into the work when composing and editing, I become all intuition and action, I make infinite decisions an hour without thinking about what I’m doing, I achieve total immersion in what I’m doing, I enter the zone, it’s a total Zen thing yo, and I’ve noticed that when I enter this sort of highly productive meditative state on a fairly regular daily basis, usually in the pre-dawn hours before work, even if just for 30 minutes, it makes me impervious to pretty much all petty disturbances at work and unpretty things I see as I walk to and from the office.
Why is the main male character in The Shimmering Go-Between an autofellator, you ask? I became interested in the activity and related thematic suggestions in the late 1990s, around the time the term “navel-gazing” often appeared to deride DFW and Eggers. As a young writer with semi-grand avant-garde aspirations, I sensed that autofellatio was the next step. I would plant my freak flag in a physical exaggeration of solipsism. This sort of thing made me giggle in a semi-evil inspired way, so I knew I was on the right track. If you think about it, autofellatio is under-acknowledged and under-valued for its contribution to American humor. There’s the side of it that relates to one of the oldest, well-known jokes in the culture: Q: why dogs lick their balls? A: Because they can. And of course everyone’s favorite limerick involves a man from Nantucket “who said with a grin as he wiped off his chin” et cetera. But oroborosian overtones extend it from self-sucking amusement to something with unexpected symbolic and thematic significance regarding renewable energy sources, be they artistic, existential, or emotional. This isn’t a new idea at all: in Egyptian mythology, Atum-Ra created the world by eating his semen. The daily perpetual round of light and darkness can be seen as a self-consuming snake. The ebb and flow of life. The ying and yang of Taoism. To anticipate the follow-up question you really want to ask: once or twice I may have tried and failed when young but am so amazingly inflexible these days I can hardly sit cross-legged. What else? In the early days of Eyeshot, a semi-literary site I worked on for about 15 years, I ran an interview with a guy named Al Eingang who’s an autofellator IRL who intriguingly illuminated the activity and some of the ideas that orbit it. Copies of his videos may still be available online. The titles are worth a look: “Blown Alone,” “I’m OK, You’re Unnecessary,” etc.
This seems like ye olde MFA question. For me, The Shimmering Go-Between is an interesting artifact since its conception and much of its initial composition occurred before I attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Excerpts from it were in my application. But its completion and all major editing occurred while I was there and afterwards. What’s interesting to me about the novel is the formal struggle between possibly quite batshit creation and the rational editorial work required to make a convoluted, impulsive, forward-flowing story like this one something that someone might actually enjoy reading. So much of the post-composition work therefore involved sequencing, figuring out how to properly arrange what wasn’t linear when it emerged. At first, it started when Dolores discovered Wilson’s site (autofellator.com) and then it circled back and tossed its legs over its head with lengthy sections of backstory about Dolores’ odd and eventful youth, which I eventually decided added an unnecessary layer of complexity to the story. I didn’t enter an MFA program until I’d been writing for at least a decade after college while traveling or working in restaurants, cafes, bookstores, temping et cetera. When I did get to spend every day for two years writing and reading and spending time with other writers in Iowa City, I was ready for it. When asked how I liked Iowa, I remember employing a colorful, folksy simile most likely inspired by a thousand-pound hog I saw at the Iowa State Fair: “I feel like a pig in shit.”
I’m pretty sure my generation (X) was the first to over-use the word “self-deprecatory.” To quote a lyric by Will Oldham, “I’ve seen people humble themselves, like it’s their due to pay.” I wrote a book about this when I was a kid called “Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World,” about how important it can be to call upon a little bit of self-aggrandizement to overcome anhedonia and restore confidence. Expensive copies are available online. Kids today with their social media profiles, it seems like they’ve been raised to expect congratulation (likes, favorites) for their every excrescence. So I’d say autolatry can be a good thing for aging depressives but kids who already worship themselves should get offline and worship the world.
I have a boxy 1991 Volvo 740 with almost 200K miles. It’s seen better days. The left taillight is held in place with glue and tape. The right side mirror is held in place with black masking tape. The leather seats are all torn up, the paint is peeling, and the fabric on the ceiling is falling down. I hardly ever drive it but I hold on to it because I love it. It’s made from real Swedish steel. And some serious writers have been in it. One day when I finally give it up I’ll write an essay about all the writers who’ve sat in it. I drove it around NYC a lot from 2000 to 2004, I used it to pick up writers (Franzen, Saunders) at the Cedar Rapids airport when they visited the Workshop, and in Philadelphia since then it’s conveyed many a writer friend.
Something that’s interested me since Atticus Books published The Shimmering Go-Between in August has been an aural source I’ve recently discovered that may have influenced some of the oddities in the novel. It’s a long story, but a worthwhile one I hope, a story I’ll present as a single block of text to turn away at a glance all those potentially unwilling to stick with and appreciate long-winded indulgence, a story that begins the first week or so at college, back in the day when I was a teenager (18 years old), before I’d cut my hair and started listening to what was called “independent” or “college” rock, let alone post-bop or Can or the Sun City Girls, a year before the arrival of Nirvana, when Pixies ruled the school, before I’d heard of Pavement or Palace or Post-rock or The Fall. I hung out one night with a chubby bearded sophomore in my dorm who’d gone to Northfield Mount Hermon and had something like a totally textual version of the nascent internet accessible via dialup in his room. He also had wine and weed, plus the newly released live Jerry Garcia Band double CD, which he tracked at excessive volume, calling all stoned hippies in earshot to come shimmy around his room. But JGB covers of Beatles, Dylan, The Band, Peter Tosh, and Smoky Robinson songs, not to mention the 1958 hit “Don’t Let Go,” didn’t influence the novel I started about 12 or so years later. I had been into the Dead, my high-speed dual cassette deck relentlessly at work, during the second half of high school. Their popular resurgence corresponded with our coming of age, 20 years after the so-called Summer of Love, right around the time some of us attained licenses to drive, allowing us to travel unaccompanied by parents for the first time from the Princeton area to “shows” at progressively distant destinations: at first the New Jersey Meadowlands, Philadelphia, DC, and then Buffalo, Indiana, California. It was the closest thing to running away and joining the circus, even if only for a weekend. We played guitars in far-flung parking lots, getting pretty good at the acoustic versions of songs we always watched on the live video “Dead Ahead” (also on the 1980 live album called either “Reckoning” or “For the Faithful”). A highlight of my youth was approximating Bob Weir’s mercurial little “China Cat Sunflower” lick high up the neck on my acoustic. And whenever we launched into “Playing in the Band,” we dreamed of the Springfield Creamery Benefit version from Veneta, Oregon, 1972, apparently the last time the band tripped en masse on stage, and also the only version of any live or studio track by the Dead I still occasionally load on my iPod. Interest in the Dead—and in extended improvisation (devotedly intoning “Bird Song” on acoustic before taking off in E for 20 minutes, or segueing “Dark Star” into “The Other One” into “Wharf Rat” back into “Dark Star” and then into feedback on unaccompanied electric guitars) and the requisite psychoactive supplementation—may have contributed to a decline in my math and science grades that kept me from attending a less interesting but more widely reputable college than Oberlin, a college in the pre-“Girls”/Gary Shteyngart era known at most for progressive politics and its conservatory of music. Everyone at Oberlin seemed deeply into music, most played it too, and right away, I met Deadheads. It was easy: most of our T-shirts advertised our affection for the band. That first year there I was memorably introduced to Galaxie 500, Firehose, Happy Mondays, Camper Van Beethoven, King Missile, The Minutemen, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Parliament/Funkadelic. But when the bearded prep school hippie sophomore loaned me a cassette to dub of a band that had blown everyone away in the spring semester preceding my arrival, when he mentioned that seeing this band with the weird short name was maybe better than seeing the Dead these days—totally different but maybe better—I was intrigued. No one I knew from home had heard of them, I’d never heard of them, and by all accounts the band members weren’t as old as our parents. They were just a little older than us, apparently, and it turned out that the main guy who wrote the songs, sang, and played guitar unlike anyone I’d ever heard (a hybrid of Zappa and Billy Gibbons?) also hailed from the Princeton area, although he’d formed his band in Vermont. In April of my first year at college, this band from Vermont played the ‘Sco (short for disco). Tickets were seven bucks, which seemed like a lot, and may have dissuaded students from showing up, or maybe not everyone had heard the cassette from the previous year’s show, or maybe my fellow Obies were too sophisticated and morose, too into Negativeland? Whatever the reason, seventy-five students or so exposed themselves to the band’s playful rhythmic lyrics, inventive storytelling, stylistic shifts song to song from funk to jazz to tender instrumentals to quick ironic country to rockers to an original sort of warped baroque classical composition that seemed to describe nonsensical cartoon chases and made my head feel like a ball of mercury clocked around an elaborate pinball machine before reaching the steady 4/4 rising action of an epic ecstatic jam built on nothing more than one chord shifting back and forth to another, measure for measure, same way we’d jammed “Bird Song” (E ↔ D) and “Dark Star” (A ↔ G) all the time in high school. But this, by infinite degrees, was better. The band jumped on trampolines as they filled the room with dry-ice smoke and cranked strobe lights. The guitarist wore white leather high-tops with the tongues pulled out, parted his hair down the middle and leaned in and out as he took off on monumental guitar solos. The bearded drummer wore goggles and a dress—and in the middle of a Neil Diamond cover he played a solo on a vacuum cleaner. Gimmickry softened the blow of the intensity of the jams and the complexity of the compositions. Everyone writhed and smiled and shook heads in pleasure and disbelief. No one stood with arms crossed as they did when the “college rock” bands played the same room. At the time, they only had one record on an independent label. But there was something about them that seemed revolutionary. I remember thinking that the guitarist played what I would’ve wanted to play if I somehow quit school and practiced 25 hours a day. It was unlike Garcia’s sweet and totally human flights inflected equally by bluegrass and Coltrane. Whatever his name was, this new guy’s solos seemed endlessly inventive, reliant on precise arpeggios and sustain—more importantly his playing seemed exaggeratedly lucid on “a sentence level,” conveying everyone to clear destinations, both at the end of a single phrase and his overall solo. Yet how he reached these destinations never seemed predictable. At times he repeated phrases, varying the last notes to inch everyone step by step to the edge of the cliff before he’d rush ahead and we’d soar. Other times he seemed to squeeze an over-inflated balloon, coming closer and closer to popping it, increasing the tension until a quick churning run let the air out and we ricocheted across the room. I left that first show more than a little love. I was nineteen years old at the time. Forgive me. The next fall, the day after Thanksgiving, we drove from hometown Princeton area to Port Chester, New York, to see the band in a small theater that sat maybe 1,500 people. I had delivered the good news of the band unto my friends, who had doubts at first, but soon enough adopted the band’s new technology. They deemed the guitarist “sickness” and punctuated related critical superlatives with an exclamatory dude. We somehow had seats in the fourth row, a little toward stage left, in front of the chinless, stoic bass player, a billion times more like Bill Wyman than Flea. We had ingested tiny squares of paper we hoped would not be bunk—would convey a manageable amount of perception-enhancing substance into our systems. The tiny square of paper was not bunk. Not at all. In the parlance of the times, it was kind. Admittedly as a result, the show itself may have been the best I’ve ever seen by any band. At least it’s one of the most memorable. The guitarist’s head seemed to steam throughout the night, as did his instrument. Whenever I turned around to look at the crowd, it seemed like the theater had transformed into a subterranean opium den. In the best possible way, everyone there seemed scroungey and addled. They played a number of songs from the guitarist’s senior thesis at Goddard, a musical rock opera of sorts known as “Gamehendge.” Inspired by Narnia, Star Wars, King Crimson, and who knows what else, it featured an old colonel trying to wrest the Helping Friendly Book from the clutches of Wilson, Duke of Lizards, King of Prussia, a realm in which punishment entails slicing one’s nipple with a piece of paper and Wilson’s men ride vehicular animals known as “multibeast.” (Note: in the Princeton area in the 1980s, advertisements were commonly heard for the King of Prussia mall outside Philadelphia when listening to Philly’s classic rock radio stations, WYSP and WMMR.) (Also note: a main character in my novel, a man who harbors multitudes inside him, is named Wilson, but the resemblance is purely coincidental.) In college I had the story down, thanks to having Gamehendge complete with narration between songs on cassette (now available in text and mp3 at gamehendge.org). Since then, much of it has passed into the deep recesses of my memory, and therefore into my imagination. But recently a friend sent a link to the complete Port Chester show, November 27, 1992. Six minutes into “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent,” the band plays very softly as the guitarist says “a strange thing is starting to happen.” Everyone in the crowd is splitting into two different entities, like a soul coming out of everyone’s body that starts to shrink and gets smaller and smaller and smaller. The entire audience is reduced to a pack of “tiny little soul people” who gather at the back of the aisle and then rush the stage, toss ropes around the mic stands, and pull themselves on stage—all these tiny soul people pull themselves up on the drum riser, “shimmy up the cymbal stand,” and one by one dive into the drummer’s hair. They climb through his hair and then one by one enter the drummer’s ear, “pick-axing through huge clumps of wax,” before they leap out into a void in the drummer’s head otherwise known as his brain. Parachutes come out and the tiny little soul people float down into a grassy green mountainous land resembling the band’s Burlington, Vermont home base—the setting for Gamehendge—where our tiny little soul people oversee the end of “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” as it continues into “Fly Famous Mockingbird.” Listening to this madness on mp3 for the first time about twenty-two years after I’d heard it live under the influence of a certain perception-enhancer, it struck me that this little verbal interlude in the show may have emerged from my imagination about a decade later in the form of a scene or two in The Shimmering Go-Between—for example when dozens of little women escape from an empty fish tank and attempt to dive into a bearded man’s mouth to enter another world (a bucolic town encircled by manicured lawn and wilderness forever in every direction) inhabited by the tiny object of their desire. If I had kept listening to them, I may have had the show on tape and been wary of potential influence, or I may have avoided writing anything like this novel at all? A year or so later I saw the band play its ‘93/’94 New Year’s Eve show in an arena in Worcester, MA. We surely immoderately imbibed and inhaled, but no tiny pieces of paper were ingested. We also were seated in the upper deck, not the fourth row. What I most remember about the show: behind me, a fourteen-year-old girl was having a tough time, most likely on acid. I may have felt too mature (now > 20 years old) for this sort of music. I’d also been listening to Can, Fela, jazz (Sun Ra, Mingus, Coltrane), old blues, classic soul. I was getting a little anxious about life after graduation—the so-called real world. I’d started listening to music by people more or less exactly my age, bands like Polvo and Gastr del Sol, whose music was intricate and interested me without seeming like it required 25 hours of daily practice to play. Phish had also seemed to have changed their sound to accommodate the larger space. An intricacy seemed lost, not to mention the intimacy of seeing them in rooms that held fewer than a few hundred people like the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. And then when their album “Hoist” came out, I felt betrayed. Not revolutionary at all! The wild instrumental compositions followed by ecstatic jams in “You Enjoy Myself,” “Reba,” and “David Bowie” had been replaced by bland straightforward bullshit. I mourned my lost love and the innocence of youth. I cut ties and moved on. After college, I moved to Austin, Texas, where I would hear “Radar 1942” by the Sun City Girls at a party at 3 AM, I would hear Tortoise’s “Ry Cooder” on a back porch in October as planes came in for a landing directly overhead, I would hear the “Hey Drag City” compilation with “For the Mekons et al.” by the Palace Brothers, and I would see bands like Stereolab and Thinking Fellers Local Union 282 for free or $2 at Emo’s. On and on, forever after, I would continue to search for and find new sounds to fit the evolving settings of life. In 2003, in Philadelphia’s hoops-and-hockey arena known at the time as the First Union Center, I saw Phish once more (and for the last time) with the same old friends I’d seen the Port Chester show in 1992. The Dead and Phish were still their aural default. I was struck by how normal the crowd seemed on the surface, knowing from the activity in the parking lot that everyone must be high as hell. White dudes in baseball caps and jeans and fleece jackets stood and shifted their weight from side to side and played restrained air guitar, otherwise out of their minds. I didn’t know the “new” songs (introduced after 1993). They seemed terribly dull on every level (tempo, structure, playing, lyrics), but then the band would send them into orbit for 20 minutes before returning to the dull verse and chorus. The crowd seemed to match the music and vice versa. It all seemed about expansive exploration of unremarkable surfaces—the perfect soundtrack for the psychedelicized suburbanite. Now that I think about it, their early songs are maybe the only ones I can really think of that have a weird and humorous inventiveness, often tinged with darkness and sorrow, that match the spirit of my novel. A true fabulist streak runs through their early songs, thanks in part to interconnected lyrics conveying the Gamehendge saga. Otherwise, while writing this, I listened to Phish all day at work on Spotify for two days. I experienced some nostalgia for experiences related above, but I can’t imagine listening to them regularly again. Even the ones I’d still deem favorites (“Llama,” “Stash,” “The Mango Song,” “Harry Hood”) are a little too goofy for me and their slow ecstatic instrumental ascents seem automatic. I might every once in a while listen to their “David Bowie” and its quasi-classical and improvisational jams divided by triumphant vocal bursts of “UB40, UB40” and “David Bowie, David Bowie.” But these days I’m more excited about Earth, Swans, Javanese gamelan music. Give me the slow, dark, meditative repetitions of urban middle age. If I could somehow travel back to my freshman year and intercept myself as I skipped en route to my first Phish show, I’d force my younger self to return to my dorm, locate the nearest copy of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation,” and listen over and again until I’d totally internalized it.
Drawings by Lee Klein