February 24, 2009
Stacey Levine tells Tao Lin a thing or two
by Melville House
Stacey Levine is the author of the novels DRA— (Sun & Moon, 1995) and Frances Johnson (Clear Cut, 2005). Her second story-collection, The Girl With Brown Fur, will be published by MacAdam Cage in March. Her website is here. Tao Lin interviewed her for MobyLives via email:
TAO LIN: Can you describe (in one sentence each) the tone of your recent novel, Frances Johnson, two books you think have distinct tones, and your life, generally, as an adult?
STACEY LEVINE: The tone of Frances Johnson, I think, is comic/philosophical. As for others: all books have distinct tones. It would be hard to list two books that don’t have distinct tones, right? As for my adult life…I’m stumbling on the word “adult.” Adult?
You said in an interview that for a while you got really into 60’s pulp novels in the nurse genre, and would read parts of them to friends at parties and that everyone would laugh, because “it sounded like it had been translated from Urdu or something.” I feel that way with Associated Press news items. What other things not widely intended to make people laugh make you laugh?
Well, I’m a huge fan of chicken humor. But I’m not the only one, of course. I am always pleased by industry pamphlets and tracts, though, like those from the orchid council or the fig advisory board.
Frances Johnson is exciting for me to read in part because it is surprising on the sentence level, in that, having read what came before, I am often surprised at what each successive sentence (or part of sentence) chooses to focus on or reveal, for example: “Immediately, she fell into a hapless, jagged doze, only to wake moments later, frightened back from the horizon of unconsciousness, for she had seen a turtle there.” What books to you have this quality of being unexpected, yet readable, on the sentence level?
That is a juicy question, Tao—there are so many writers who are surprising. Maybe writing itself—the act, the machinery of it—is, by nature, synonymous with “surprise.” I’m reading Haldor Laxness, who is just amazing in that way. I also like Jean Rhys, Elfride Jelenek, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Among contemporary US writers, Gary Lutz, Lance Olsen, Brian Evenson, DFW, Kate Bernheimer come to mind. But there are so many more. I’m also often intrigued and surprised by psychoanalytic texts and case studies, like some by Thomas Ogden.
You said Frances Johnson was meant to “slightly spoof ‘coming-of-age’ novels and also old romance novels.” Do you think it would be possible to effectively spoof FRANCES JOHNSON? If so, what do you think it would it be like? What do you think Kafka slightly (or more-than-slightly) spoofs, if anything?
Someone did actually spoof Frances Johnson, on a blog. It was great and amazingly funny to me. I hope it’s still up somewhere on the internet. As for Kafka, spoofishness is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of his work. He does critique social institutions in absurd ways that reveal the institutions’ absurdity. And sentence by sentence, he’s hilarious. But also his work is acutely chilling and heartbreaking and has resonances with the Jewish experience of the early part of the last century. I’m always floored at the scene in The Metamorphosis in which the father shies apples across the room at Gregor, and one of these becomes embedded in the bug’s back and begins to rot there. It’s almost unbearable in the way it describes the specific pain of being powerless, and a victim—not “victim” in the overblown, glib, overused, contemporary sense of the word, but in the sense that some humans become objects of others’ cruelty (even, unconsciously, when parents are cruel to their children). We can become victims in overwhelming ways that defy description. Except, luckily, this part of life has been expressed through literature (case in point: through Kafka).