Milan Kundera once wrote that a really good novel is smarter than its writer. I feel that’s not the case with scholarship. A really good piece of scholarship is exactly as smart as the person who is writing it. That person is very much in control of that piece, whereas in a novel, there really does have to be some other process that has to take over. If it [the novel] is going to be ultimately successful it can’t be steered or driven by the writer.”
Rand Richards Cooper ’80 is the author of The Last to Go and Big As Life. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Esquire, and many other magazines; his short story, “Johnny Hamburger,” was included in Best American Short Stories 2003. A longtime reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and contributing editor for Bon Appétit, Rand is currently a film critic for Commonweal. He lives in Hartford, CT, with his wife, Molly Winans ’89, and five-year-old daughter, Larkin, and is writing a book about late-onset fatherhood.
Rand Richards Cooper: I’m Rand Richards Cooper, class of ’81, novelist, short story writer, former visiting writer at Amherst College, 20 years ago, in fact. And that year I met Lawrence Douglas. It was his first year teaching here at Amherst. We’re here to talk about his interesting literary career, but specifically about his recent novel The Vices. Lawrence is professor in the … What’s the interminable name of your department?
Lawrence Douglas: The name that I was not responsible for coming up with is law, jurisprudence and social thought.
RRC: Right, the department of law, jurisprudence and social thought, one of the few departments in the United States that uses every letter of the alphabet in its title. Lawrence, this has been a highly unusual year, not only for you personally, but for someone like you, for someone who teaches what you teach. You’ve published a novel, The Vices, a parody novel under a pseudonym, a parody of Stieg Larsson, and the book is called The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo. You’ve got a forthcoming feature article in Harper’s Magazine on the trial of John Demjanjuk, which you covered via multiple trips to Munich. This doesn’t even take into account whatever you may have been up to in your academic and scholarly writing. What happened? How do you account for this explosion of literary activity on your part?
LD: Well, it wasn’t really meant to be, I mean I had been working on The Vices. The Vices was something that took me about two years to write and it goes back to a time when I was on sabbatical a couple years ago and that’s when I really did the bulk of the writing of that. Right at the end of that sabbatical, just coincidentally, this John Demjanjuk, whose legal odyssey has, as I think you know, has been going on for 30 years. He was deported from the United States to Germany to stand trial. And I was pretty well-positioned. I had written about Demjanjuk’s earlier trial that had taken place in Israel, so I was kind of well-positioned to now write about this German trial. So, that was just coincidental that that happened to start up just as I was finishing up a draft of The Vices and then the parody was something that just kind of fell in my lap. I was approached by my agent, asking me whether I’d be interested in doing this. There was a lot of time pressure on that project, and it was only because it was something that kind of fell in my lap that I thought I could do it pretty quickly that I decided to do it. So it was kind of just a weird, fortuitous, coming together of circumstances. Otherwise, I’m not usually as neurotically productive as that.
RRC: So, you don’t see yourself proceeding at the same pace of productivity for the next period of your life.
LD: I look very much forward to not proceeding at that level of productivity.
RRC: I’d like to talk about the different kinds of writing you do, particularly the kinds you do as a scholar, academic, and I suppose legal theorist or legal historian, and then the fiction that you’ve started, somewhat belatedly in your career, to write. How do you view the two major areas of your writing in relation to each other? Can you talk comparatively perhaps about the kinds of work, the kind of thinking and creating that goes into, for instance, a book like The Memory of Judgment, which was your book about Holocaust trials, and The Vices?
We’re going to talk in detail about The Vices. The main character is a philosophy professor named Oliver Vice. The narrator is his friend, who’s a novelist who also teaches at the same college. At one point, the narrator, the novelist’s friend, says, “I couldn’t square this arid, analytical work of Oliver’s with his lively and passionate journalistic pieces. It was as if they had been written by a different person altogether.” I sort of want to turn the same lens on to you. Are the different kinds of writings that you’ve produced, are these activities and these processes all at peace with you, or is there a Wemmick-like compartmentalization?
You teach in Amherst in a department that combines, in effect, legal theory and literature. Meanwhile, the book The Vices addresses, in effect, the process of supplying a narrative to explain events, a narrative that has to persuade, but doesn’t necessarily have to tell or is able to tell the whole truth. To what extent, I guess I’m asking, does The Vices take up issues along lines that have in fact been central to what you’ve been doing as a thinker about law and jurisprudence?
LD: Well, yeah, I think my answer is yes and no. That is, there are definitely aspects of the novel, I mean there might be a spoiler alert that we have to kind of put here. Part of the novel does deal with questions about the Holocaust. Both this novel, The Vices, and my first novel, The Catastrophist, dealt with issues of the Holocaust. And you see in my legal incarnation I also kind of work on that subject as well.
In terms of the actual kind of style of thinking or approach, I do find that not so much of a part and a little bit quite different. I don’t want to take credit for this term because it was a friend who had suggested it to me to describe some of my work. She described me as bitextural, and I do feel that I kind of have a little bit of this bitexturality that, when I am doing the academic work, I do feel that I’m in very much of this analytic mode, and that is, I just feel that’s how my mind is working. It’s working on the level of argument, it’s working on the level of how something logically fits together and the logical adequacy of the parts. And when I’m doing fiction writing, it just feels to me like a very, very different thing that I’m tapping in to. And it feels like, kind of as you said, like I’m trying to construct a narrative. A narrative can’t be something that’s sort of willed along by intellect. There has to be, you know, I don’t want to romanticize the process of fiction writing, but I don’t think the process of fiction writing can be willed along in quite the same way that a piece of scholarship can be willed along.
Or maybe to answer the question just a little bit differently, at the end of the day, if I finish a piece of scholarship, I think I have a very good idea of what the strengths and weaknesses of that piece are. And at the end of the day when I’ve finished a piece of fiction, I don’t really know if the thing is successful or not. It’s very hard for me to judge. I think I usually leave it up to my most valued readers, mainly you or Brad Leithauser or something. But, I really don’t have a good sense whether something is successful or not.
And maybe also the final way to answer the question is I think Milan Kundera once wrote that a really good book is always smarter than its writer. A really good novel is always smarter than its writer. And I feel that’s not the case with scholarship. That is, I think a really good piece of scholarship is exactly as smart as the person who’s writing it. That person is really very much in control of that piece, whereas in a novel, I think there really does have to be some other, some other process has to take over, and whether it’s going to be ultimately very successful, it can’t be something that’s just steer-driven by the writer.
RRC: Maybe this is why, while the concept of writer’s block is well-known, you don’t hear about scholar’s block.
LD: I think there are some examples of that, to be honest. I think there are people here who actually suffer from that, but I think in general, you’re right, I mean I think it’s something where, as a scholar, you can prod your thinking or your writing along in ways that I don’t think a novelist can prod along the creative process.
RRC: Like your narrator in The Vices, you went to Yale Law School as he did. I was trying to think of other lawyers, or legally trained, as you are not a lawyer, but legally trained novelists, and low and behold there’s really a whole parade of lawyer novelists. There are those who are identified with genre books like John Grisham or Amherst’s own Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson and others. But then there’s also Louis Begley, Louis Auchincloss What is it about lawyers as novelists, why are so many novelists trained as lawyers?
LD: Well, I think one thing is … Actually, not to kind of create some kind of a competition between the workshops in Yale Law School, but it is interesting. Yale Law School, particularly, has produced a whole bunch of writers, uh novelists that have this … Actually, an Amherst graduate, Mark Costello, who wrote the book Big If.
RRC: Oh, the friend of David Wallace.
LD: David Foster Wallace’s friend. Big If, I think, was a finalist in the National Book Award, terrific novel. He went to Yale Law School. This guy Adam Haslett, who did that collection of stories and just had his first novel, I think it’s called Union Pacific or Union Atlantic or something like that, that came out last year. There was this Jane Mendelsohn who actually dropped out of Yale Law School and wrote this book I was Amelia Earhart. I think part of it has to do with, and actually if you go back to people like Flaubert, who trained as a lawyer. I think it’s probably like a lot of people who end up going to law school …
RRC: You’ve researched this question.
LD: Yes, I’m very interested. It is something that is very interesting to me because I do think that a lot of people who go to law school, a lot of people end up in law school because they don’t know what else they’re doing.
RRC: Were you one of those people?
LD: Yeah, I think so. You feel certain kind of parental pressures and you don’t know exactly what else to do with your life at that point, kind of in your early 20’s or so and you end up going to law school. And it’s only once you’re there that you start realizing, is this really something that I want to be doing? Do I have other ambitions? Do I have other things? Am I sacrificing other aspects of myself for the purpose of pursuing a career for which I might have ultimately very little purpose? So I think it’s not entirely accidental, the fact that people who have some abilities, but without a lot of direction yet in their lives, end up in law school and at some point deciding this is not really going to work for them.
RRC: So, what did they teach you at Yale Law School that is conducive to the habits of thought of a fiction writer?
LD: I would say nothing, I mean I honestly would say nothing. I mean I don’t think there was anything bad. The only good experience I really had at Yale Law School in that regard is that, I’m not sure if this was my attempt to sort of be an outsider or my attempt to kind of be pretentious or so. But, when I was at Yale Law School, I would carry around novels with me because I thought somehow that would set me apart. Now it didn’t set me apart in any attractive way from any of my other law students because they rightfully were there to study law and they weren’t there to study literature. But, I thought I was very cool, kind of walking around.
I remember a particular reading of Michelle Tounier when I was there and it did work out that a professor, this Owen Fiss, who’s a very prominent legal academic in the United States and a pretty passionate reader of fiction, he saw me toting this book around. He became interested and hired me as his research assistant and I have to say that was to the immense frustration and irritation of a bunch of my classmates in law school who were doing far better than me in law, very much wanted to be hired as the research assistant for the prominent Fisk and were not at all tickled pink to see this incredibly mediocre law student suddenly getting this plum job simply because he was pretentiously walking around with novels.
RRC: This may be the most novel account I’ve ever heard of how one becomes a novelist. You became a novelist almost because you carried novels around in an attempt to elevate your status. I like that. It’s actually of a piece with many other writers’ testimony, that desire to be a writer. Viasni Paul?? writes about this, that the desire to be a writer of fiction very much predated any actual working conception of what it meant, what it might possibly mean to do that.
LD: I think that’s exactly right in my case, I mean it was either that I had no idea what it was, or if I did have an idea of what it was, it seemed like an illicit activity. I mean it really did. I think I kind of grew up with the idea that a writer was something that you are, while writing is something that you do while doing something else, but you could never just become a writer. That is, unless you were some immediate, certifiable genius that was from some very early age, like an F. Scott Fitzgerald who had some kind of incredibly precocious success. But, maybe it came from my father, maybe it came from my naturally own risk-adverse self or so, but the idea was that, no, you first get the degrees under your belt. That became the line my father always used, “Get the law degree under your belt. It’s a flexible degree. You can always do something else with it afterwards.”
RCC: Well, then you were a very dutiful son, because not only did you get that degree, but you added a couple of other degrees, plus two decades of a fairly high-powered academic job and then you started cranking out the illicit books.
LD: Yes, exactly.
RCC: I’m going to give a brief synopsis of The Vices in case any listeners haven’t read it. It’s about a friendship between two professors at Harkness College and you can see the air quotes that I’m putting around “Harkness.” Both of your novels have been set at identifiably Amherst College-like places.
The unnamed narrator is a novelist, and his best friend Oliver Vice is a philosopher and we learn on P. 1 that he has disappeared, fallen, or been pushed off of the Queen Mary II during a transatlantic voyage. His death is assumed a suicide. His family becomes an object of fascination for the narrator and much of the book consists of the narrator’s growing … An accounting of his friendship back over, what is it, perhaps 15 years, with Oliver Vice and his fascination for Vice’s family.
Publishers Weekly has called it “a probing and skillful examination of the conundrums of identity” and a very positive review in the New Republic called your book “a deft exploration of the way identity is constructed and performed,” and it says that The Vices “does justice to its elegant, Nabokovian inspiration.”
Now I know readers are always interested in knowing how a novel comes to be. Nabokov himself spoke of the moment when a spark of inspiration grows the wings and claws of a novel. What can you say about where the novel The Vices came from? What got you going?
LD: I think there are two points. There were two separate things that had happened, or things that I knew about that I was almost trying to kind of almost figure out a way to create a narrative to connect them.
One of them was the idea of writing about a friend’s death was something that I had been thinking of for many, many, many years and it goes back to actually when I was in law school, a very close friend of mine died in the PAN-AM 103 flight, the flight that went down, that was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. And this close friend of mine was actually someone who was not all that mentally stable. And I found out about his death when someone had left a voice message on my answering machine saying, “I’m really, really sorry to hear about your friend.” And as soon as I received that voice message, I realized that he was dead and my first assumption was he’d killed himself, because again he was not a stable character. And probably about three or four hours passed until I finally figured out or was able to find out from someone else that, no, he had actually been on the Lockerbie plane and had been killed. And here I was, I was still finding out that this friend had died violently, and yet learning that it was, that he hadn’t killed himself, filled me with immense relief. There was something very, kind of a sense of, you know, just relief that he hadn’t taken his own life. And I thought that was a very interesting thing to think about, this notion of finding out that a friend has died and yet being filled with immense relief leaning that it was not a suicide.
The other thing that was something that had happened with another friend of mine, which is he had a very, this friend had a very troubled relationship with his father, basically his father had been absent from his life and at the very end of his life the father had bequeathed the son a piece of art. And that piece of art ended up being kind of the only meaningful, authentic connection between the son and this distant father. And it was a pretty valuable piece of art, so the son had to, this friend of mine then had to go and get some kind of insurance binder out on it. At the time he brought the piece of work in to be assessed for insurance purposes, he discovered that actually it was a forgery. It was not an authentic piece of work. And so this idea that the authentic connection to the father was predicated on this gift that ultimately turned out to be a forgery. That also kind of really stuck with me.
I think the impulse on The Vices was to see if I could shape some kind of narrative that would connect those two different feelings and those two different moments, one about learning about the death of his friend and the other learning that friend had inherited a forged work from his father.
RRC: Did the father, did it turn out in that real-life instance that the father knew that it was forged?
LD: No, I don’t think that the father had any idea.
RRC: A lot of the lawyer novelists that we mentioned write mysteries that are genre mysteries. No one reading your book would consider it to be a genre book, and yet if you tick off a list of mysteries in the book, it almost sounds like a pot boiler. It’s easy to think of the book as a compilation or layering of mysteries. It involves possible Nazi art theft, there’s Swiss bank accounts, money smuggling. There’s the central mystery of Oliver Vice’s death and how it happened. The cover of the book shows a man with his face obscured, you only see half of his face. And your prosaic and very familiar-seeming narrator turns out to be a kind of systematic, if not pathological, liar, and we never even learn his name. Discuss the importance to you of and your engagement with the theme of mystery in this book.
LD: Well, I mean one thing as you absolutely point out is it’s not a mystery genre. It’s not a mystery novel. I’ve never read a mystery novel. I have no interest particularly in mystery novels, and in fact one thing that I was a little concerned about was that I thought, maybe even the publisher was treating it in an attempt to attract a larger readership than a piece of literary fiction would attract. It was almost trying to sell this thing as some type of literary mystery novel, which I really don’t think it was. In fact, I was horrified when I went into one bookstore as any author does, you compulsively go into a bookstore to see if the bookstore, A. is carrying your work, and, B. to see how prominently displayed it is and I found …
RRC: To move the books around …
LD: Of course, to put it in the front window. You know, wait until the main clerk is looking in the other direction and hustle it into the display window. But, I discovered that the book was actually in the mystery section. That made me kind of get a little ill feeling, but the issue of mystery is … I love novels that keep me reading. I like a well-structured novel, so I thought one of the things about the mystery was it’s a way of lending structure to, an architecture, to the narrative.
The only other thing that I would say about the mystery element is, I often like works that don’t have entire closure to them. I mean I think this a book that, it’s neither a book that offers complete closure, nor is it an attempt to be one of these kind of post-modern novels, which is deconstructing the very idea of closure. I don’t, I’m not particularly attracted to that either, so I don’t like narratives that tie things up too neatly, nor do I like novels which leave things kind of intentionally in a state of suspension. But I like the idea of a kind of mystery that never reaches an entire conclusion or resolution.
RRC: I’m interested in the way any writer who’s trying to pull off a roughly 300-page narrative that spans events that go back over 50 years and certain events are going to be in the foreground, certain events are going to be in the background. The issue of foreground and background, I think, is a particularly important one in your book, both for the experience the reader has but also in terms of what I imagine went into constructing it. I’m recalling a Charles Baxter novel, but I can’t remember which one it was, but whose narrative, the narrative moves back in time, so the first chapter actually takes up a relationship now and then subsequent chapters follow backwards in time. He uses as an epigraph for this book a quotation from Kierkegaard: “Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood in reverse.”
Your novel starts out by laying out in the very first paragraph major outcomes that the protagonist Oliver Vice is dead, that he disappears off the deck of a ship and is presumed a suicide, and that quote, the narrator says, “He was my closest friend and remains so even after he ruined my marriage.” Now, why did you decide to put certain culminating events right up in front like that? Are there other ways … I think that what readers don’t always understand is that novelists have free choice. I mean, a book that’s successful comes off as seeming like the way it had to be. But of course another novelist might have led a reader on a process of immersion and discovery in which these highly dramatic events would be a culmination. How did you arrive at the structure of your book?
LD: Well, I guess … There are two, I guess, things that happened in the earlier parav, in that first parav, one is this notion that we’re immediately introduced to the fact that this guy has died, possibly a suicide, possibly an accident, possibly even shoved off, it’s not exactly clear. That was very clear in my mind that I wanted to start with that, because it was so much an important part of the exploration that the narrator’s engaged in. The narrator is drawn in part to the story of Oliver because he’s trying to lend a sense to his ending. He’s trying to make a sense of that ending. And so the reader has been taken on this process of exploration that the narrator himself has embarked upon. Then with respect to the other piece of information that …
RRC: I’m just going to interrupt. It’s very interesting because essentially it sets up Oliver’s life in light of his death and sets your narrator operating on it as a kind of text.
RRC: And I know you’ve disavowed affiliation with post-modern or metafictional kinds of approaches to fiction that get in the way of a realistic engagement with characters. I know that’s a central point for you.
RRC: But there is something inherently critical or metafictional about the idea that your narrator, who himself is a writer, is operating on the text of this person’s life in a way that may diverge from the way that we readers are operating.
LD: Absolutely. No, that’s absolutely right. And you know maybe this is why I was kind of thinking, that, you know, that someone like Nabokov was someone who was so much in the back of my mind when I was writing this thing, whereas, as you point out, it’s not like I have this, I guess … Maybe I should put it this way. The problem I have with post-modern fiction is the way in which it kind of interferes with a telling, the way it kind of interferes with a reader’s experience of character and story.
But I’m very much attracted, as you point out, to questions of, to, you know, treating someone’s life like a text, that is, as something you’re trying to make sense of, that you’re trying to read, that you’re trying to extract meaning from.
And so I think you’re exactly right. Part of the novel is about the process of taking someone’s life, taking the life of a close friend and then reshaping it into narrative and how the sense that one has at the end of that life, the conclusion of that life, ends up in a way ordering everything that comes before.
RRC: What’s the remark and who makes it about how we inevitably, when there’s a suicide, we inevitably read the life as a …
LD: Yeah, it’s a narrator, it’s the narrator who makes that observation towards the very end, saying that when someone has died as a result of suicide, we inevitably see the life as this kind of inevitable movement towards this horrible end and we read everything back … You know I think if you look at something like Amy Winehouse or something like that. Everything then becomes, every act in her life becomes a step towards this inevitable act of self-destruction.
RRC: Or David Wallace.
LD: Or David Foster Wallace, exactly. Another perfect example of that.
RRC: Re-readings of his writing …
LD: Re-readings of his things. Everything is anticipatory of this end.
RRC: People who know and love and people who take their own lives tend adamantly to resist this notion.
LD: Exactly. That’s exactly right. In fact, I found one of the best examples of someone resisting that notion, and I think it was in the novel The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, in which one of the characters commits suicide and the narrator of that, The Sportswriter, he actually says something along the lines of, “I’m convinced that if he had made it through that one night, he would have lived to a happy old age.” So, as opposed to thinking that he was inevitably, you know, at some point, life was inevitably moving towards this self-destructive act, it was more like, no, this is just something that happened this one particular night, just like getting in a bad car accident and dying from that. If he’d only gotten through that one night, his life would have continued on a very, very different trajectory. And again, all of the friends and relatives would have seen the life on a very different trajectory as well.
RRC: I’m going to have you read a short passage from the book so that people listening to us can get a sense of the flavor of it. I’ve marked out a passage, if you would, uh page ... it’s the visiting Christmas so it’s early in the book … 66. Alright. From here to there.
Let me just set it up briefly. This is one of the parts of the book that’s been praised by a number of reviewers. It’s a lengthy Christmas visit that the narrator and his wife make to the Vice family. Now, eccentricity runs rampant among the Vices. The mother Francisca grew up in, was a child in Budapest and her parents were killed toward the close of the war, during which he first reports as a bombing, a Soviet bombing of the neighborhood. But, later on mysteries about her parentage come out. So, in this scene, your narrator and his wife are visiting for Christmas and it’s just a description of the Vices’ apartment, which is where?
LD: In Manhattan.
RRC: In Manhattan and present are Oliver, Francisca, his mother, Bartholomew, his highly eccentric and somewhat disturbed brother. Just read a description of their apartment, mostly a description of their place.
LD: Oliver showed us into the living room, where the others sat drinking. The room was spacious but densely arranged, the reigning design principle Old World-high bourgeois-eclectic. Paintings hung on the salmon-colored walls, one atop the other, salon style, as in Oliver’s loft. Dried hydrangeas were collected in Chinese vases. On a side table sat a collection of porcelain cats, carved boxes of amber and jade and silver teaspoons with hand-painted handles. There was a tasseled dinner bell of bronze enameled with lapis with a design of dragons and another with a pattern of warriors riding costumed elephants. Manhattan must have hundreds, maybe thousands of such apartments, but for me, the son of Long Island, it was something new, intimidating in its casual opulence and suggestive of self-sustaining and inexhaustible wealth.
RRC: And now, an equally brief passage, P. 261, about Oliver and this is the narrator summing up Oliver’s reputation at Harkness College.
LD: In his early years, particularly after his confrontation with Clinton, Oliver had enjoyed a cult-like status among students, his aloof lecture style, his dry wit, his thick hair and pressed English shirts attracted a coterie of fiercely devoted students who located in Oliver the very embodiment of intellectual commitment and chic. He was a campus celebrity, and his courses, events. Over time, though, the buzz faded, the Romans fell, and students clamored after newer, younger hires. In an age of great inflation, he gave out more than a symbolic sprinkling of C’s, refused to accept late papers and downgraded in Draconian fashion for errors of spelling and syntax. On ratemyprofessor.com, he was called a stickler, a curmudgeon and an uncaring professor. Granted, in a handful of chat rooms and blogs sustained by the college’s hardcore philosophy geeks, Oliver remained popular or rather became the stuff of persistent rumor. Following these cyber trails, I learned that he’d been implicated in the death of a Finnish girlfriend, had dated Darida’s daughter, had written paradoxes of self in a psychiatric hospital, had called Tony Blair a war criminal to his face and had inherited a vast fortune. But in the tradition of Diogenes and Wittgenstein, had given it all away. Among the small, dedicated group, the myth of Oliver continued to grow and flourish.
RRC: Thank you. There’s something … I’m going to fit up against The Vices a template of one of the great novels of American literature. There’s something conspicuously Gatsby-like in the set-up of your novel, with your narrator a somewhat mild and self-effacing Nick Carraway kind of figure who’s looking from, as it were, from next door at a figure, and in this case a family, that to him are larger than life. And that last passage in which he relates these wild rumors about Oliver, there’s something quite Gatsby-like in that the wild rumors about Gatsby that filter back to Nick. And also in the sense of a rise and fall that Jay Gatsby also has in that novel. For a novel like this to work, an observer-narrator, that observer has to have, has to engage this sense of fascination about something highly significant, albeit illusive about these characters. What is that fascination that the Vices hold for your narrator and, I assume, for you?
LD: Yeah, I guess the fascination is, you know, in part it’s a fascination about wealth, it’s a fascination about ... The narrator comes from, I guess you would describe as a kind of basically middle-class, Long Island, Jewish family. The narrator, his grandfather is a kosher butcher, the family comes from basically an East European shtetl, very kind of poor background and he’s attracted to this … On one level he’s attracted to the exotic, European wealth. According to Francizka, Oliver Vice’s mother, there’s a connection to not just wealth, but to title, to this kind of aristocratic, in fact almost noble background, this nobility. I think there’s also an attraction to Oliver himself. The narrator, when he first meets him, is kind of in awe of his intellectual gifts and these intellectual gifts are also connected with a kind of eccentric personality, but I think he’s deeply drawn to that. I mean, he’s somewhat of an outsider, the narrator is to an intellectual community. He’s hired as a kind of, as a visiting writer at a college; he’s not really part of the academic community exactly. And I think he’s profoundly attracted to this figure who seems to stand for a … who just seems to be immensely both gifted and troubled. So I think it appeals to his novelistic imagination as well.
RRC: He also … He attributes … He uses the word “great” and “greatness” several times with regard to Oliver. I think that’s a little bit of a stumbling block for me. Part of the nature of a stumbling block in a book like this is that you’re not always sure that the narrator’s judgments, since he is in some subtle, but pervasive way, an unreliable narrator, are really accurate judgments or whether one should approach them guardedly with a sense of irony.
There’s a scene in which Oliver, whose intellectual hero is Vichtenstein, quotes Vichtenstein talking about the struggles that he Vichtenstein had in his own life and how those were invisible, perhaps, to other people and mentions to his sister, Vichtenstein says, “You look at me as a person through a glass window, but you don’t see the wind that is blowing against me.” There’s some illusive sense and at times it alluded me because Oliver has certain aspects of his character that are, pretty frankly, annoying. Where in lies this greatness that your narrator refers to?
LD: Well, I think, first of all that you’re absolutely right, that the narrator’s characterization of Oliver as great has to be taken with a grain of salt. I mean, this is part of the unreliability, I think, of the narrator. In fact, I think at some point as he starts investigating Oliver’s family’s background, he makes this trip to northern Portugal, he’s talking with this woman and this woman seems baffled that he’s spending all his time researching Oliver and she says something like, “Oh, I never realized that he was such a great and famous philosopher,” and the narrator sort of has to go, “Well, uh, maybe not exactly, he’s not that famous.” But there was this aspect of greatness to him and she doesn’t understand it at all. She can’t get it whatsoever. And the fact the narrator’s wife, the one that Oliver brings ruin to this marriage, she herself, when she’s talking to the narrator, says, “This guy’s pretty troubled and screwed up, but I don’t really see him as some kind of fantastic, exemplary figure who represents some great struggle of the human mind at the end of the 20th century or so.”
And so the narrator on some level, he does see himself kind of as one of these elected persons who alone can perceive the greatness of Oliver, and the greatness, again, doesn’t reside in his intellect for the narrator, it resides in his struggles, in his suffering. He sees that there’s something kind of great in his contradictions and eccentricities and in his failings. That’s where he finds the greatness in this character, in his immense struggles and his sufferings.
RRC: This is where I’d say your novel really departs from the template of The Great Gatsby. We may have our perspective on Nick Carraway, but I don’t think we have a fundamental queasiness at any point about the validity of his view of Gatsby. Worship, fascination, yes, but you take your narrator to another dimension in which you strew through the novel bits of evidence that suggest that to be a writer in the way that he is, is a highly problematic thing at the human level.
LD: One of the things that goes on in the novel is, there is a suggestion that Oliver is basically an invitation for the narrator’s imagination to kind of run free, that is. So, in a way, Oliver becomes a creation of the narrator. Right? The narrator is telling his story …
RRC: And others register this with some consternation.
RRC: Especially his wife, for instance.
RRC: The narrator’s wife.
LD: That’s right. The narrator’s wife realizes that he’s kind of poaching on this friendship for his own creative sustenance. The other thing that’s kind of the flip side of that, at least one of the things I was trying to do is actually point out that it starts out in this arc of the narrator being attracted to Oliver as this kind of exotic “other,” you know this sense of awe. Yet by the end you realize that the differences between, that is the narrator and Oliver, start looking a whole lot more similar than the narrator’s even aware of. That in a sense it’s almost a kind of narcissistic project going on there as well and the narrator ultimately in a sense sees almost a reflection of himself, that these people are not nearly as different, he and Oliver aren’t nearly as different as he thinks at the beginning of the novel.
RRC: I want to pick up on that and ask whether there’s a broader set of significances to the dynamic you just described or whether this is … I mean, I’m a writer so I’m fascinated by these questions. What is a writer doing when he or she approaches the life of another person with intent to commit narrative?
Question 1, but I’m not going to answer until I get around to the longer question, is this just probably an in-house issue for writers or is there a larger existential thing, perhaps about a friendship that you’re getting at, but just put a hold on that for a second. I want to say that we’ve noted that both of your novels center on Amherst-like colleges and anyone who knows you well will see that Oliver Vice seems pretty closely modeled on a colleague and a friend of yours.
At the same time, your novel explicitly thematizes the problem, one might call it, of the author as thief or predator or parasite, whatever metaphor you want to use. The narrator’s wife accuses him of being in love with Oliver Vice and then of wanting to be Oliver Vice. The narrator himself meanwhile throws aside the novel he’s working on that has to do with a suburban Long Island background, deciding it’s hopelessly boring, and he instead decides to write about the Vices, but only after admitting that the first, and so far only, book that he’s published was actually sort of stolen from the life of another friend of his.
So, you’ve set up an enormous metaficitional hall of mirrors here, one that takes in your narrator-writer and also takes in you. Now, your narrator says, “Over the years I’ve come better to understand that writing about someone dear is never an innocent gesture, is always part homage, part predation.” Now, you seem to have written a novel that’s full of warning, and even reproach, for novelists. Can you discuss this and has your novelist-narrator, does your novel convict its own narrator of a literary crime and if so, is it one that you yourself are committing by even writing this book?
LD: You know, I guess in a funny kind of way, by sort of writing it, I guess I’m sort of both committing the crime and also trying to kind of fashion my own acquittal, because I mean it’s meant to kind of offer its own sort of justification.
RRC: You see, Yale Law School did something for you!
LD: That’s right, exactly. So there is a kind of, it’s an elaborate legal argument that’s contained within the shape of a narrative … No, I think you’re right in a lot of ways in what you’re characterizing. I mean, and I did think of the process of writing as simultaneously this kind of homage and predation, but actually going back to the first part of the question you asked, is to whether then this is just simply something that is problematic or a topic that would be of interest to a novelist only. I mean, I think one of the things that I tried to do is tried to create the similarities between this project of narrative fashioning that the narrator engages in and the act of self-fashioning that Oliver’s mother has engaged in, that is Francisca. Because one of the things that the narrator discovers in the course of his investigations is that if he’s an unreliable narrator, Francisca, Oliver’s mother, is most emphatically not. She’s constantly, all her stories have inventions or have fabrications embedded in them, and ultimately her identity is a process of self-fabrication.
And one of the points I was trying to make was not that this question of self-fashioning or of creating a narrative by which that is pleasing or that we live by. It’s not simply a task that writers engage in, it’s basically something that we all engage in, that we all engage in this project of self-fashioning and that in a sense the strategies that a novelist uses are not dissimilar from the strategies that all of us use in coming up with an identity that permits us to get through our daily life.
And in fact there is one point, I think, later on where the narrator’s kind of reflecting on Francisca, on Oliver’s mother, and says something like, “We have this shibboleth, we have this saying that the truth will set us free.” But, maybe, you know, free from what? Maybe it’s the case that living by lies or living by deceptions, living by self-fabrications is just as authentic and just as productive a way for creating an identity that makes us live happily or smoothly. It gets us through life.
RRC: You structure that notion very deftly, I think, until the end of the novel. I won’t give away. We’re trying to avoid spoilers because there is a substantial amount of situational mystery in your book. But at the end, you have your narrator write a press release that in two paragraphs, essentially sums up without any obfuscation or exaggeration the reality of the Vices, where they come from, where their money comes from and so on. In essence, hands over as a kind of Cliffs Notes or Spark Notes the two-paragraph summary of what your narrator has been digging toward the whole time.
LD: Yes, and then throws it out.
RRC: And then throws it out. And there’s a profound sense of anticlimax in a good way, I mean it’s instructionally anticlimax in that the climatic things and events in the novel have happened, but it’s also an anticlimax to see this reduction of people to the mere facts.
LD: Yes, and I think, exactly, because I mean there’s something so much richer about the story, and once you reduce it to the facts, there’s something kind of deflating about that.
RRC: That’s very Gatsby-like as well.
LD: Yes, exactly.
RRC: In effect, when Jay Gatsby’s father shows up and he’s a little old, modest man.
LD: Exactly. Right.
RRC: I’m interested in … This may be part of the answer, but I’m going to ask it anyway. The Vices works really by opening what seems like a very small door to a very large subject, because behind this all is the Holocaust, some of the most awful facts of 20th-century history - genocide, war and exile. These are enormous topics.
RRC: Whole courses are taught on these topics. But, up front is a rather, seems a rather small bore or academic drama centering on two colleagues in an Amherst-like campus. So, I think in this question I’m fumbling toward a question every writer has to take on and that is, do you have the right story, front and center? In other words, could you imagine by three quarters of the way through this book, your writer has decided to write a book about the Vices?
RRC: Could you imagine having dropped your writer-narrator and simply written the story of the Vices directly, a story that spans enormously poignant and difficult events on two continents at least over half a century? Why the extra level or layer of distance, the extra removal of the frame?
LD: I mean, to answer the question, I would not have wanted to write that book. It’s not the kind of book that I’d be attracted to writing, because I think so much of what interests me about people is their memories and their stories, and that’s the thing that I find fascinating to me.
It’s not so much the actual history itself that was lived through by the earlier generations, it’s how that history that was lived through is distilled into memories and stories that are then passed on, distorted, retold, changed and how those stories have a kind of lingering effect on the way people live their lives in latter-day generations. That’s the thing that really interests me.
So it’s really much of a less of an interest in the history per se, as dramatic as that history is, it’s really kind of looking at how that drama has been distilled through people’s memories and then kind of becomes embedded in their, yeah really in their kind of deianeira lives, in that you see these traces in the kind of shirts that they wear or the kind of ways they furnish their apartment and furnish a sense of self.
RRC: I think it’s important for potential readers to know that while it’s possible to make this approach and these concerns sound dryly academic, the book is anything but. In other words, to be preoccupied with essentially a set of critical processes, which is really what your novel does, does not mean that one has to exclude a vivid human story. I think that’s the challenge, as I understand it, that you’ve taken on. How can I get the super structure of interpretation while still having a book that has the lifeblood of humans in their story? I think the book succeeds marvelously at that.
LD: Well, thank you very much.
RRC: I have a last question about The Vices. I do want to ask you two or three other questions about other things you’re up to, but I found myself surprisingly overtaken by the closing gesture of the novel, in which the narrator, visiting Oliver’s grave, places a pile of stones on the grave. It suddenly seemed to me that to some extent, this is a novel about being Jewish, both in the world and in fact being Jewish in America. And I know on one hand that shouldn’t surprise me because many of the historical concerns of the story do have to do with religious and ethnic identity, but it doesn’t seem along the way that this is what the book is about, and yet it’s quite moving to … It almost feels as if a semi-hidden subject suddenly announces itself. I don’t know. What can you say about that?
LD: Well, I mean that I’m glad that you find it moving. I find it moving as well. I mean, I like the ending. At the same time, I do think that the ending is sometimes consistent with the rest of the project of, you know, trying to affix an identity, which is ultimately very hard to kind of get a handle on, because the closing gesture is almost a suggestion that Oliver’s Jewish.
LD: But that’s not necessarily what he really is or what he ever recognized himself to be, and so it’s again one of these things where it’s less a recognition of an identity than kind of a creative gesture on the part of the narrator.
RRC: Or an appropriation.
LD: Yeah, or an appropriation. Exactly.
RRC: Because the narrator has consistently shown himself as desirous of ridding himself of his … And he, like you, is the grandson of a kosher butcher in the Catskills.
RRC: He finds this insufficient to his own romantic imagination and would like to jettison it. And yet at the end he’s claiming Oliver, whose roots are quite ambiguous, for Jewishness. Maybe that’s what you meant when you said you have a sense of closure, but it’s quite ambiguous actually.
LD: Yes, yes, I think that’s exactly right, and in fact I feel like it’s one of those Charlie Rose moments where the question so encapsulates its own answer. I mean it so brilliantly encapsulated its own answer, I don’t think I can add to it. I think that’s exactly right. It’s not a gesture of any kind of closure. It’s a deeply ambiguous one.
RRC: Do we have time to move on for a last section here? Let’s go on quickly to talk about your surprise emergence as a writer of parody. You mentioned a little bit how that came about.
I understand that before you sat down to write The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo, you really hadn’t even read Stieg Larsson, so you did a quick reading of it. I since have read all of those novels for various reasons. I found The Girl with the Sturgeon Tattoo riotously funny, as I told you. I laughed … You know, it’s hard to repeat a reader’s banality, but I did, I cried. You know, I laughed and I cried and that happens about once a year with me.
Now, parody, of course, necessarily involves a conspicuous element of ridicule, of mockery, but there’s a whole other level at which Larsson’s books are taken quite seriously. I mean, he’ll get a major review in The New York Review of Books, not least for their alleged feminist content. What are the targets that Larsson … What are the big softballs that Larsson lobs up there for the parody writer?
LD: Well, first of all, you’re exactly right. I mean, I had had this contract before I’d ever read a page of these books and so it’s actually last Thanksgiving when I compulsively kind of read through them and I was virtually having panic attacks at the time because I feared that there wouldn’t be enough material to parody. But, reading them quickly convinced me that I had no reason to worry at all. There was a lot of stuff, and part of it has to do with, you know, some of his kind of weird ticks that he has as a writer, these things that he does where he supplies this completely over-the-top information about instruments of technology, the way in which he does have this kind of, in my mind, this kind of cake-and-eat-it approach to violence against women, where he casts these books as this kind of proto … you know, he has this kind of proto-feminist protagonist, and because he has this feminist protagonist, that then gives him the creative license to imagine every possible, you know, sexual brutality that is then perpetrated against all these women in Sweden.
The other thing I think that’s also fun is I think in the United States I think this counts for probably one of the reasons that we, that these books have been successful here, is that we think of Sweden as this, you know, this kind of bucolic utopia, this ultimately egalitarian society, so there’s something, I thought, just kind of hilariously over the top about the way he is portraying Sweden to be this completely sociopathic society.
RRC: And so what did you do with that in the book?
LD: Well, some of the things that I tried to do about it is, well, actually, and this is something … It’s also one of these kinds of things about both the attractions and the problems about writing parody, because parody is a legal concept as well. That is, in the kind of archean law of copyright, parody has an exception. You’re allowed to write parodies of things, so it’s a fair use to the application of copyright law. But, for example, one of the things that I did is I figured well, if you’re going to be parodying stuff about Sweden, you have to trade on things that Americans know. So one of the things everyone knows is things like Ikea. Now, you can’t use that name, but you want to have it recognizable, so I very creatively called it Ukea.
LD: And if you read Stieg Larsson, there’s some obligatory gesture towards fascism or Nazism, and so I did have some kind of plot, you know, uncovering that the head of Ukea has ties to Adolf Hitler and that Hitler might have even offered some of the early designs of furniture of Ukea.
LD: And I thought this was about as wild and ridiculous a thing that I could possibly come up with. And then of course the lawyer from St. Martins, who very carefully examined this book to make sure that it satisfies these legal standards of parody, comes back and says, well, you know of course the founder of Ikea was a member of the Swedish Nazi party. And so now we do have to worry about how Ikea would respond to this. We have to be very careful to make sure that there can’t be any suits for libel …
RRC: But fortunately your legal training at Yale Law School prepared you to deal with this.
LD: Actually, the one thing that was funny about this when I was talking to this lawyer from St. Martins, I said to her, you know, I had taken a course on intellectual property and I wasn’t about to say to them, that wasn’t my understanding. From my course, I remember … I felt that that would probably not be the smart way.
RRC: One of the more enjoyable characters in The Vices is a quite world-wise lawyer who just heaps scorn on the narrator for having gone to Yale Law School. Did you enjoy doing that?
LD: Yeah, I did. I liked that scene a whole lot. I really like that lawyer Morgan.
RRC: Yeah, he’s great. He’s a great character. Manny Morgan.
LD: Manny Morgan. He went to Michigan. That’s a good law school.
RRC: I watched recently The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Scandinavian film not the coming film with Daniel Craig. It’s like the book but even more so it’s a strange amalgamation of solemn, existential brooding, combined with the most lurid sort of genre violence. It’s like Bergman meets, you know, Son of Dracula or something. It’s a strange mish-mash.
LD: Yeah. Well, I think all his books have that quality to them. I mean, there’s …
RRC: Is that useful to you as a parodist? Do you try to bring that out?
LD: Well, I certainly try to have all these kinds of ridiculous areas in which Ingmar Bergman comes up. You know, I think one of the things is they’re even talking about Ikea and the different furniture they design. They talk about the Seventh Seal Sofa. You know, they have a whole line of sofas that was inspired by the great masterpieces of Bergman and …
RRC: The Seventh Seal Sofa. I like that. Last thing, Lawrence, you were back and forth this past year, often to Germany, to cover the trial of what may be the last Nazi war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk. Can you just give a capsule version of what it was like to do that? Your cover article in Harper’s is coming out in November?
LD: Yeah, actually it was pushed back. I think it’s now coming out in January.
RRC: In January. So what was it like to be there covering the trial of a nearly 90-year-old former camp prison guard?
LD: Well, I mean the … Covering trials … The trial was originally supposed to last 14 months and it ended up dragging on for 18 months and I was only there intermittently. I think I was there … I had to fly back and forth to Munich on six different occasions to go to the trial. And I think it’s typical of these types of very high-profile trials that they are a combination of very high drama, very kind of interesting moments and incredibly long stretches of tedium and boredom.
Rebecca West, the writer who wrote about the first Nuremberg trial, described the Nuremberg trial as a “citadel of boredom.” And I think in many ways, that’s a very apt characterization of the Demjanjuk trial. I found it interesting in all sorts of ways, but the actual day to day of sitting in a courtroom following a trial can be an incredibly soul-destroying experience.
RRC: Is it possible … He’s 90 years old, right?
LD: 91 now.
RRC: 91. He was semi-recumbent and barely aware?
LD: Well, no, I think there was a lot of kind of feigning that was going on or play-acting on his part. That is, he was recumbent during the entire trial. He was kept on this hospital gurney propped up at a 45-degree angle.
Apparently, as far as we could tell, he wasn’t paying attention to anything that was going on. As soon as he was convicted … He was convicted and then immediately released pending appeal, which I thought was a brilliant decision on the part of the German court. That is, I thought they did the symbolic right thing of convicting him. I thought the idea of actually sending him to prison doesn’t really serve any purpose whatsoever. He’s so old. He’s already spent a lot of time in jail, awaiting trials. So I thought that was a very good result, but as soon as he was then released pending appeal to an old-age home … What’s the word for an old-age home?
LD: Yeah, altenheim, but in the United States, what do you say?
RRC: Oh, retirement home.
LD: Or nursing home. He was sent back to a nursing home and in that nursing home … Yeah, we have trouble talking just English, man, and I sometimes only in German, we speak. So he was sent to this nursing home and immediately there was a photograph of him that appeared in a German newspaper of him strolling around the grounds of the nursing home, this guy who barely was able to, you know …
RRC: So, there was some chicanery going on in his self-presentation during the trial.
LD: Chicanery’s the word.
RRC: You approached and were present at this trial and wrote about it in your capacity as a legal scholar. Do you see material for fiction here? Did you feel something happening?
LD: I did think about that a lot. I thought about a lot whether this would be something that would be kind of a nice … that is, a way … Because a lot of what was going on in that trial was, who is this character? What is his identity about? So some of the … You know, you can kind of draw some connections between the legal issues that were lying at the heart of this Demjanjuk case and some of the issues I was dealing with in The Vices. And so it did get me thinking a little bit about whether that would be a … that that would supply interesting material to try to fictionalize, even though I think with that material, I’m sort of happy to try to … I think the real-world non-fictional challenges of telling a story are great enough …
RRC: You mean, they won’t be, the narrator won’t be a law professor who’s dealing with the issues of representing …
LD: That would be the way to go, obviously, if I were to go in that direction.
RRC: Last question. What are you actually up to next?
LD: Actually, I’m working on the Demjanjuk, so that Harper’s piece that you described will probably be … It will be the kernel of a book about Demjanjuk.
RRC: A non-fiction book.
LD: A non-fiction book.
RRC: I want to close this … You and I both lived for periods of time in Germany, so I want to close this interview with a little formality that I’ve always appreciated from German interviews. They say quite formally at the end, wir danken Ihnen für dieses Gespräche. Professor Douglas, we thank you for this interview.
LD: Thank you, Rand.