July 2, 1996 -- missing intro. This came out after publication of "Goldsmith's Return"
This is a very funny book.
Thanks. Nothing is quite as funny as someone else stubbing his toe.
But you feel guilty for laughing—because there’s also a lot of horror here—and it’s very personalized horror. The truck not only runs over a character’s foot, it runs over the foot that hurts. I think one of your characters said something like “hell is tailor-made.”
Morrie Schickler says that. He also says that “Your own demon is the only one in your whole life who will give you truly personal service. He finds out where it hurts and that’s where he kicks.”
You get the sense that somebody down there hates Goldsmith, that Goldsmith is living under a curse. But ain’t we all?
Yes, Goldsmith is under a curse — as we all are, more or less. Part of what makes his story universal is this inescapable fatality into which each individual is born. After all, we don’t choose our families or our genes or the dreams that visit us every night: the freedom we have is restricted to how we play the cards that life has dealt. That’s what makes card games so fascinating — the fatality of the deal, the freak accident of getting a King or a Joker, and the deadly serious business of betting, bluffing and playing our hands.
What does all the twisted crap from the past stand for?
Could you give me some examples?
Well, your book is full of people holding onto crappy, dead junk from the past. There’s that depraved Southern guy living in a cross between “Gone With the Wind” and Night of the Living Dead.” There’s the amusement park...
OK. In one sense all that dead stuff stands for persistent neuroses—a good example is the survival of the amusement park. It’s crumbling but it’s still there. The giant effigy of Feldman is there . . . .
He no longer blows smoke...
He no longer blows smoke but he remains as a torment.
(laughs) That’s a hilarious image—but, again, what we’re talking about is Goldsmith’s tailormade Disneyworld from hell of personal humiliation. So it’s a joke, but a very dark one.
Darkness has a lot to do with the way I work.
What’s odd is, even though the book is magical and arcane it’s true to life, the way some dreams can be true to life. You have these weird, powerful images that stick in your head...the giant effigy at the amusement park, the green Hudson, the two-headed baby.
That has a great deal to do with the way I work—which is in terms of voice. I start from a situation or observation which releases that voice—the two headed baby, for example. I was reading a Stephen Jay Gould essay in which he talks about examples of two headed babies—and I knew I’d hit on something.
How do you deal with the grotesque without turning the book into a heartless, literary freak show?
By keeping my heart open, by remembering that my characters are real people. I suppose that what Coleridge said about the suspension of disbelief was true: if you want to create good fiction you have to believe that your characters are real.
You can’t think “it’s only a story.”—even if the effect you’re going for is a kind of black comedy.
No—because life is both real and grotesque. And in a way it would’ve been easier to create a simply malicious book —but I was careful not to. Dagmar is a good example—she’s grotesque, but she has depth and feeling. Goldsmith may be living in a freak show, but he is also a lover — a cursed lover. In one form or another he loves the people he encounters—even Dagmar.
And you believe in them all.
I believe in them all.
What would you say to unkind PC critics who might accuse you of misogyny?
That I am an equal-opportunity misanthrope. I treat the men at least as badly as I treat the women. But in all seriousness, I don’t think that’s fair. On the Kabbalistic level of the narrative, Thessaly is a stand-in for the Shekhinah — the feminine manifestation of the sacred. Thessaly marries the penniless Goldsmith because she is attracted to real artistic value. When she does leave him, he has richly earned abandonment.
And you could just as easily say the book is anti-men. Goldsmith is a loser—which makes the implied yin to his yang the great American winner. In your book most of the winners seem to be men—the real men who face the real world. The big joke is—these realmen, realworld realists are BS artists. They make a very good living selling phony dreams to the rubes.
You get my point very well. Through the book, Goldsmith and his family are haunted by demons and by a creepy secret society of mirror-worshippers. These people worship illusion...
But they’re also selling it.
Yes. And as false artists — BS artists — they are the demonic parody of real artists like Goldsmith. The triumph of cheap illusion and the demise of value have a lot to do with what I see happening out there in the big, bad world.
When does Goldsmith first run into these people?
Goldsmith meets them when he first goes to the amusement park. “We believe in image,” they say, “we believe in illusion.”
I love that image of the crappy funhouse, by the way. It reminds me of an earlier incarnation of Disney World—ever been there?
Too many times.
The feeling I get always get is: “this is not fun.”
No, it’s not fun at all. But you make like you’re having fun because you’re supposed to be having fun, you paid for it—so you participate in the lie. You never really make it through the mirror into wonderland, but you think you do.
But if people enjoy it, what’s the harm?
Well...it’s a fool’s paradise, a tawdry fake. And that goes back to the whole idea of the Black Holers, the mirror- worshippers. Their religion is a combination of cheap illusion on the one hand and of narcissism on the other. Goldsmith’s evil half-brother Roger even worships his own mirror image.
It also makes for a nice conspiracy theory. A secret cult of mirror-worshipping hucksters are making a lot of money selling easy dreams—it’s a reasonable explanation of the Reagan Bush era.
So this has a lot to do with Reaganism, a lot to do with Hollywood, and, ultimately it comes down to commercialism. This meretricious delusional system permeates politics, television, conversation, relationships. And all of this crap parodies the vocation of the true artist.
Bad faith and bad art—that seems to be the subject of your book. It’s about the life of an artist—the life of a painter—but you keep the “artist’s struggle” very much in the background. Which is another thing I liked. He’s not the usual Christ-figure with a paint brush.
Exactly. It’s not really about the nuts and bolts of making paintings. It’s about the artistic vocation, which is a totally different matter. It’s really about the soul of the artist.
Psychomachia, warfare of the soul?
Yes indeed, that’s what it’s about: the struggle of an artist to claim his soul—which is where Thessaly comes in. For Thessaly is an image of his soul. So, on that level, Thessaly is very serious and deeply beautiful.
So our commercial culture sucks, the hucksters who parody real artists are getting rich and we’re now living on the third mall from the sun.
Yes, but there’s also a wonderful, hideous vitality in all the kitsch. Nabokov calls it “gloating enthusiastic disgust.” The kitsch and banality themselves become food for inspiration. In this way my book feeds on TV culture and there’s a gorging delight in feeding on that stuff. For example, there’s the kiddy show host Uncle Wiggly. And there’s my Confederate peeping Tom, J. Edgar Hooudnik. They have the vitality of insects. They represent a pernicious illusion that replaces and subverts true value— and eats like a cancer into American life.
J. Edgar is a wonderful comic villain.
Thanks. J Edgar is the offspring of incestuous generations —and incest is another way of looking at the mirror problem. Instead of being able to reach out of one’s self in order to multiply, in incest one is attempting to mate with oneself. So in J. Edgar I suggest not only a parody of true art but also a parody of healthy relationship.
And bad art is incestuous. It doesn’t take you out of yourself—it pushes your buttons, tells you what you want to hear—and sells you stuff.
And there’s no real vision. It’s secondhand. It might be a politically-correct Bohemian Rhapsody, it might be a fifth- generation knockoff of Gone with the Wind for sentimental Southerners.
But how do you know the difference between the real dreams and the fakes?
Because—I know when I’m telling the truth or not. For example, I know if the dialogue feels real or not.
It’s a question of intention?
Yes. A question of intention and of conscience.
But what if the demons came to you, dangled a big wad of money in front of your face, and said “sell out....sell out.”
Well, so far they haven’t done that. But I’d rather be the person who scribbles the truth on the bathroom wall. I get a lot of energy out of being subversive.
Aha—so there’s an autobiographical element.
Well it’s not that autobiographical—but I was the first kid to get kicked out of class in elementary school.
Yeah, I know your kind — portrait of the artist saying rude things during the Encyclopedia Britannica film. Is any of the mystical stuff autobiographical?
In what sense?
In the sense that some of the mystical stuff here seems a little too believable. It makes me wonder if you’ve ever had any mystical experiences...deja Vu, ESP, emanations, childhood visions...
Goldsmith’s childhood was nothing like my own, and so I’m afraid I have disappointingly little to report about conversing with angels, ESP or the reappearance of dead relatives—God forbid.
No mystical experiences?
Well...yes, I have (so to speak) stubbed my toe on the infinite—which is why I studied Blake for years. And I’ve wrestled with demons long enough to know that they are real. Incidentally, Goldsmith’s name (in addition to the alchemical allusion) really came into being when I was first thinking about him as an artisan like Vulcan — whose wife ran off with his aggressive brother Ares.
So are the mystical references serious, or is it a gag?
That’s very either/or—and my answer would have to be that it is a serious gag.
So THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE, as they say on the “X-Files”...or the people of the lie at any rate. Which is anothe rone of your dark jokes—you end inconclusively, J. Edgar and Roger and some other creeps are still on the loose...
Yes, they’re all still out there. There is a promise of something being resolved, but that may be disappointed.
Hope is a spiderweb on the ceiling. It’s there—and that may just make things even more painful. That’s life.
Yes. And if I had wrapped it all up neatly it would’ve been false. But it’s not just a question of being true to life. On the one hand, it’s a realistic comic world; but on the other hand, there is an allegorical, Biblical level to the book. The book is divided into three different section—Egypt, Sinai and the Promised land. On an allegorical level, it follows the wanderings of the Israelites. Goldsmith is in Egypt at the beginning. In the middle, at Groyton Academy, he is seduced by fleshpots of Egypt. At the end, like Moses, he is left looking toward the Promised Land. For he is looking toward the possibility of getting back to Thessaly. It’s all left open ended — it’s uncertain whether or not his salvation is assured. Of course, I have my own feelings on that score.
My guess is you’re rooting for the character.
Yes, I’m rooting for Goldsmith. I do think that to a certain extent he’s vanquished his demons.
But the rabbi does get through the mirror?
Yes, after 97 years, Rabbi Schwartzman does finally pass into the mirror of art.