Week 11 reading response: Paul La Farge

Please write up your question and Paul’s answer. I’ll start with a longish entry, as it includes both the introduction and my question. Feel free to make yours shorter—cut to the chase and let La Farge do most of the talking.

NB: Please file these to me via email following assignment formatting. Use the template.

A syllabus is the plan for a semester-long party. The fun of it is making up the intergenerational guest list, imagining the chemistry between new acquaintances and old characters. Whoever the guests turn out to be, they’re likely to relate to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, earnest young writer, and John Updike’s Rabbit will impress them with the elegant prose he’s always dressed in, even if his interior monologue is occasionally revolting. And what’s a party without Two Serious Ladies (Jane Bowles) who drink too much and leave everybody in stitches?

For the practicing artist, a special pleasure of the guest list is the prospect of including one’s colleagues alongside their fictional creations. In LT212, we have questioned American novelist Jennifer Egan about her Pulitzer-prizewinning collection of linked stories A Visit from the Goon Squad, and, more recently, Paul La Farge about his pair of linked stories “Another Life” and “Rosendale,” both of which appeared in The New Yorker.

I’ve known Paul—who has long taught fiction writing at Bard Annendale, and who read last semester here at BCB from his novel in progress about American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft—since we were freshman-year roommates at Yale in the late 80s. We shared the suite with a guy named Pablo and three other guys who were not named Paul. The six of us collaborated on a novel called Rank Filth, whose single draft was pinned next to our shared toilet, and today the work, though sadly unpublished, is considered a leading example of the collegiate roman à Klo. Since then Paul has been a generous and helpful reader of my novel in progress, providing a model of forthright and constructive criticism that I have sought to emulate in evaluating the fiction produced in LT212.

Paul is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the critically acclaimed historical novel Haussmann, or the Distinction, and, most recently, the hypertext novel Luminous Airplanes. After introducing him to the class, I started off our conversation following up on a blog observation by Lindsay that both “Another Life” and “Rosendale,” which follow the exploits of the young writer-waiter-stripper April P., are rich with literary and cultural allusion. Not just April P. but other characters are deeply engaged with the philosophy of Rousseau and Wollstonecraft; the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Byron, Keats, and Shelley; the fiction of Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, Nabokov, and Mary Shelley; and, importantly, with the Jewish tradition of the golem. “Rosendale” opens on a character whose home “is full of books: some novels, many thin volumes of poetry, collections of essays on feminism and psychoanalysis, Hungarian cinema, Soviet Jewry, Australian aborigines, Kant, the Kabbalah. Worlds upon worlds.” In “Another Life,” April P. combines her pleasures, tapping out two lines of cocaine on the back of the Norton Anthology of American Literature. What, I wondered, did Paul have in mind with such a proliferation in two short stories of worlds upon literary worlds?

April [Paul replied] is someone who is saving herself through writing. She is someone who is making a world for herself by reading books and by writing stories. For her, that’s a way to live and a way to find another life which is better, or what she hopes is better, than the life that she had as a child, or with her family. The golem is part of that — I think of it as being a part of April that she hasn’t been able to deal with. There’s a kind of muddy self that she’s tried to leave behind, and it’s obviously still with her, and she’s confronted with it when she sits down to try to write a memoir about her life and her experiences as a young woman in the Boston area. And all of a sudden it’s like she’s opened Pandora’s box: she looks into her old self and there’s something there that she can’t face, which is this golem. And the story, in a way for me at least, is about her figuring out some way to have a relationship with it.

Week 11 reading response: Paul La Farge

One thought on “Week 11 reading response: Paul La Farge

  1. Lola Jalbert says:

    By the time the interview comes around to my question, I think that Paul has already answered my question. Because of this, I ask the question as a clarification. Is it true that one of the two protagonists is supposed to have ‘written’ the story? From the earlier interview questions, I had surmised that the husband begins the narrations, which is taken over by April P., who demonstrates a more successful writing style. It is clear that a clarification was necessary, as Paul replies.

    “I think she’s the author in a way, of the entire story, but she staged it to show you the sense that she’s imagined her way into this guy’s life and she’s represented the story as if it were her story.”

    He explains further.

    “She’s had this encounter, it wasn’t a great encounter probably, for her. The husband is sort of spinning all of these fantasies about what it means without taking a lot of trouble to imagine the reality of her life as she’s experiencing it. He’s in a kind of romantic, delusional state about what this all is and she has pulled the rug out from under that. She’s saying, ‘you can’t imagine me, but I can imagine you. I can represent what you’re feeling much more clearly and much more accurately than you have been able to represent what I’m feeling.'”

    Paul describes this shift in the plot as a point of reversal, where April P. attempts to show the husband what is important to do when writing about other people.

    “To think into the lives of other people and actually to imagine what’s happening, in their heads, rather than just projecting a self serving story on to the blank canvas that you imagine you’re seeing in another person.”

    Like

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