When I asked him which of his novels was his favorite, Matthiessen didn’t hesitate before answering, Far Tortuga. Like the Watson books, it’s more than just an adventure novel; it’s a document of a lost vernacular, in this case spoken by Caribbean green-turtle fishermen, part Moby-Dick, part haiku. Tortuga is a challenging, experimental read and a soaring masterpiece, but it’s also a literary relic which would not have been written if Matthiessen hadn’t lived with the fishermen he was writing about, soaking up their culture, their language, their lives. Is there a novel as simultaneously expansive and intimate as Far Tortuga? Is there a novelist alive who writes books with such brazen full immersion? The life and work of Peter Matthiessen teaches us that there is no substitute for actual engagement with the world and all its people and species and darkness and wonders.
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition. Over the course of the summer and into the fall, over 27 million people trekked to the White City and its titillating sideshow, the Midway, including one enterprising man who boxed and shipped himself C. O. D., only to be apprehended upon arrival for not having a ticket (entrance fee: 50¢). The White City was a self-proclaimed fever-dream utopia built, as its host city had been decades earlier, directly on lush swampland.
Our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story.
Terror makes you slender.
Intertextuality, interconnectivity: we live in an age of overlapping narratives. Stories are told, no longer only in books, but in a cloud. Stories infiltrate our lives and memories through a variety of ways—television, tablet, smartphone, dumbphone. Ads on subways, 3D banners on the infinite Internet: the words might try to sell something, but what we’re buying is story. And it’s inescapable. If we try to escape narrative, narrative finds us, sinks its mangled teeth into us, tries not to let go. Then again, narrative has always been a predatorial species, it seems to me—it seeks us out, not the other way around.
To paraphrase Don DeLillo: the novel leads; it doesn’t follow. And that is why books like Tristram Shandy will always matter to those of us who care about these things. After all, we don’t read the book that was inspired by Tristram Shandy—we read Tristram Shandy. We don’t read Gaddis’s imitators—we read Gaddis. We read the trailblazing lunatics who are unafraid to follow the form into uncertainty.
How about Cervantes? How crazy is Don Quixote? Even nineteenth-century novels, which are supposed to be so staid, they’re actually not. I mean, I do think we’ve gotten really quiet about pushing any limits, all limits, as fiction writers. I would love to see more craziness out there. The novel began as this completely weird outpouring of strangeness. It was there from the beginning. It’s inherent in the form. I just want to feel some playfulness happening on the page, and if genre has started to hold people back, then it’s time for genre to disappear. Or change.
Possibly novelists are all aliens among natives. We should all wear little signs around our necks that mark us as aliens. It happened a few weeks ago, where I completely lost it and I was sobbing my eyes out. I happened to glance and there was a mirror in the corner of the room. I stopped crying and looked in the mirror—oh, so that’s what grief looks like.
Serious literary books used to have a choke-hold on the national penis. It was incredible. Philip Roth sold 400,000 of Portnoy’s Complaint the first year it was out! His plumber said, “Hey, ain’t you the guy that writes them dirty books?” I had a cable repairman come to the house and he took a look around my apartment and said, “Why you got all them books?” What he was thinking was, You have a twenty-five-inch TV and eight million books. What are you, an idiot?
Ultimately it’s only ever down to the right word used in the right place, the most surprising word. Form comes out of content, I think. Language is the only thing we have. The music of a sentence. Whether it be cut down, carved away, whatever it is. You know it when you hear it. DeLillo, for instance: “He speaks in your voice, American.”