A Genealogy of Style: A Conversation with Douglas Glover

Someone had replaced the Price Chopper muzak with a Stevie Ray Vaughan selection. He is a good, decent man, surprisingly so since he works in a bank. There are houses hanging above the stars
And stars hung under a sea …
And a sun far off in a shell of silence
Dapples my walls for me …
It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
Should I not pause in the light to remember God? 
Bless me, I did not know what anaphora was. I am a formalist, not a reporter. By the time it appeared in the journal, I knew I had to do something similar with Glover. Then this:
Time passed. All the deepest stories are apophatic. She had a ground floor apartment looking out onto Rotary Park and the South Saskatchewan River. Shelby decides there should be a wedding but only because “[a]ll the best stories end with a wedding. But much as I love that anecdote, it’s not a short story. As we sifted through the creative genesis of each story, we found ourselves tracing his development away from naturalistic modes of writing and toward the darkly humorous innovation he has made his own. I don’t write fiction to tell you what happened. This is in reaction to my previous story collection, 16 Categories of Desire, which might have been subtitled “The Disasters of Love”; the recurring motif in that book is the tag line “All my life has been an effort to liberate myself from love.” It makes little sense to ask me what I believe in all this. For no reason, he gives Olga a little poke in her deflated belly. Your question highlights the mystery of creation, the transformation of a little something, perhaps a real-life incident, into a work of art. Characters are driven by desires shaped by ideas. I still had those ambulance chaser instincts from my reporting days. Shelby intones the ritual (Anglican prayer book). A story is the application of form to an idea. Then we slithered sideways to rescue the dog. I was four years away from the events in question, about the right time for incubation. My girlfriend wrote a sanitized version for the paper. Think of Shakespeare.” They build an altar out of crates of baked bean cans. “The author,” says Olga. Following what I just said about Gombrowicz, you can construct the universal plot as the self sorting out its relationship with other forms. Just as the weddings are about to take place, carried away in the moment, Pa drops to his knees and asks Ma to marry him again. I just gave those people names and started writing their stories. It sounds a bit dry to say I composed the story for technical reasons because that gives you no idea how excited I get when I figure out how to do something new. In this case, the root idea was the utter strangeness of that incident, the dog and man in the river, that strangeness having something to do with the bedrock of human existence, something we ordinarily forget. What happened, and how did it catch your imagination? Glover is the author of six collections of stories, four novels, and four books of literary nonfiction, versatile body of work. Can you tell me more about the structural genesis of this story? And the narrator doesn’t really know the story, is only struck by the juxtaposition of things and the surplus of meaning it engenders. I persuaded him to take me on as a writer by offering him an interview with Gabriel Josipovici, whose work I knew we both loved. In the back was an octagonal garage with an apartment above, where the first owner of the house kept his mistress. (Three eyes.)
¤
Victoria Best is a freelance writer who has published essays in Numéro Cinq, Cerise Press, and Open Letters Monthly. In my stories, this self-meeting-not-self adventure spawns innumerable plots and interchangeable themes including a religious theme having to do with transcendence and redemption (metaphors of escape). At the same time, I realized I was bored with the idea of liberating oneself from love. Sometimes, as in The Life and Times of Captain N. “They are signs of life,” he says. The narrator takes the blame upon himself for the story’s failure, but I don’t actually think there’s a word out of place. When I reached the riverbank, the policeman was scrambling on hands and knees toward a man in the open water clinging to the ice shelf. That other form is a savior if you’re looking to escape your self or an oppressor if she or he demands too much, or switches roles over time. I was instantly out the door, forgetting coat, hat, gloves. I’d become interested in the creative process, and the interview covered the span of Gabriel’s career in the form of a creative biography. To me, it’s a religious moment. She glances up at him irritably. It seems to me that freedom and entrapment provide the warp and weft of this story, both in terms of the love affair and the narrator’s storytelling. Then he says an astonishing thing, words that break the form, a blind leap. From a writer’s point of view, what’s not to like about sex? He could look out the back windows and wave to her and then go and hang out with his wife and children. But equally powerful in memory is the smoking, churning river sliding under the ice, and the completely alien nature of the weather in Saskatchewan at that time of year. “Dog Attempts” is a culmination of that trajectory. And I left town. Compulsive, disturbing, risky, and reckless — your words just about sum up how sex works in both stories and life, though it’s also joyful, rhythmic, reproductive, and liberating. In “Savage Love,” marriage liberates the two men from their melancholy obsession with the same imaginary woman. For humans, it’s always on, and the operative distinction is between what you show and what you don’t show. But boredom is a great motivator. A character’s sexuality is a complicated messaging system at the center of which is a gap (the unconscious again) and a mysterious, embarrassing, thudding passion to do something with our genitals. Like the couple in the story, we were already together in the past tense. Whatever happens next will happen “for no reason.” Olga justifiably complains about the author. Can you contextualize this story in your writing life a little more for me? That other form (it could be a lover or the UPS man or a refugee immigrant or your cat) tries to incorporate you into its structure and you do the same — two fuzzy desires trying to recreate one another as satisfactory love objects. He feels like a corpse climbing out of a grave. I tend to think of sex in your stories as evocative of an original bestiality. I lived alone in a vast three-bedroom apartment (my whitewater kayak had a bedroom all to itself) on Sherbrooke Street in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, between the Loyola campus of Concordia University and a steamy joint I used to frequent. Look, I don’t believe in essences. “Uncle Boris” likewise plays with the themes of love, sex, marriage, and art. In Aquin’s literary universe, sickness and failure are the only avenues available to the oppressed (he was writing about himself and Québec). You want to eat but not be eaten. For animals, the switch is either on or off, mostly off, depending on breeding cycles. ¤ 
VICTORIA BEST: The genesis of the story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” was a real-life incident, yes? The mystical flavor is intentional, as in all my fiction, but balanced with whimsy and irony. Failure to fulfill form is the path to existential purity. Now imagine love and the complications of a form not totally at peace with itself having an intimate encounter with another form not totally at peace with itself. The entire story becomes an image of fracture, failure, incompleteness, and the mysterious complexity of life that is always evading us. Olga acts hideously toward Bjorn, but he has his own line of development irrespective of what she does; he becomes a Robin Hood investment tycoon, also a poet, and when Olga has a son, he becomes an attentive father, whether the boy is his or not. Before Clark bought the place, it had been used as a boarding house for Hassidic Jews who came up from Queens every summer to take the waters. Irony runs through every line. (1993), the encounter with another self is tentatively redemptive. So, entrapment and escape, yes. Those are shallow demands. But at the very end, the two men are transformed. The two figures in combination — husband and wife, dog and man — and the language that links them, began to coalesce as a story in my mind. The backbeat is the Pa and Ma plot. My first semi-conscious attempt to break the mimetic lock on my soul was to start messing about with refrains. Ryerson’s two-volume Marxist history of Canada (1960, 1968) and Tony Wilden’s Lacanian, postcolonial, disrupted The Imaginary Canadian (1980). I had quit my job as sub-editor at the city newspaper and was heading south to New Mexico, but my ancient Rambler Rebel kept threatening to break down on the frozen, death-dealing prairie, so I was camping with my girlfriend. We converged on the policeman and formed a human chain so he could safely approach the ice lip and lever the man out. Rabelais is a character in my novel Elle. It makes no sense to ask a composer if he believes in a melody. But it’s important to remember that these thematic ideas are thought experiments for the purpose of setting up characters and plots. You’re not even certain of the nature of your own desires, which nonetheless lead you straight into a world arena packed with entities that want you to conform to the pattern of their desires — the desire of the other is another form yearning to be filled. Bjorn says, “We should get married again. Also, they suited my ongoing curiosity about creativity, as Glover told me he had always found the short story helpful in finding new forms, new ways to write, as opposed to novels, which require such a long investment of time that (he said) you can’t afford to be too playful. Bjorn thinks: The universe is a complete mystery to me. The melancholy form of fraught, unhappy relationships, the quotidian suffering of domestic life. These books presented me with a handle on my own provincial upbringing and the restless feelings it engendered; they offered an alternative aesthetic universe. In the story, the dog dies, the marriage ends, all sentiment is overridden by the implacable inevitability of death and endings. And the effect is contagious because suddenly Olga has a place to forgive and change. And, of course, the dog has to die. The joy is in the pressure. But it might redeem you.” In Elle, I hypothesize a hybrid effect. In the end, I decided to concentrate on the short stories because his novels, especially Elle, which won the Governor-General Award for Fiction in 2003, had received so much attention already. But ask me what I think about boredom as one of the great human motivators and I can go on for ages.) So, I inverted (how I adore the rhetorical device of inversion) the strategy and decided to see what I could do with happy marriages. I stand by the mirror
And tie my tie once more. A black guide dog, harness flapping against his shoulders, paddled next to the blind man, pawing at him as if to sink him. It’s a perfect description for what’s happening in “Uncle Boris.” I’d love to know more about how you see those transformations working in the story. Pa starts painting a mural inside the barn and becomes a famous painter. Then Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. Later, I read Stanley B. It marks time. All of this flew together into a plotless narrative that spirals amid its concerns, held together by the blind man and his dog, the husband leaving his wife, and the incessant reminder of the story’s incapacity to be a story (the antithesis of what I had been trying to do with that novel). Can you tell me how this came about? And a hint of metafictional commentary on story-writing. I had a philosophy background but was determined not to lumber the story with philosophy. In this case, it doesn’t interest me a bit whether the husband or wife stay together or why the dog led the blind man into the river. But not all the truth. I told the policeman where I lived and took the dog. I’d read Frantz Fanon in the 1960s but had no idea how his theories might apply to me (in what ways my provincial upbringing might oppress me) till I encountered Aquin’s mad, drug-addicted, super-fucked, failed revolutionary. Sex offers access to the way a character manages his or her deepest emotional machinery, how she negotiates love with a partner, how she presents desire to herself and to her lover, family, and the general public. It brings the reader back to the starting point and sets the stage for new development. The man lay on the ice with the boys’ coats draped over him. The house was vast and down-at-heel. Jokes aside, it appeared that the man might have meant to kill himself. She is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. Just upriver, on the opposite bank, an industrial outlet pipe kept a stretch of water ice-free and steaming. (also, coincidentally, first published in 1968), another novel about failure, illness, and a poète manqué. You read him to be dislocated, unsettled, and yet deeply moved. I happened to be staring at the snow when a police cruiser pulled up. One day (in the Loyola library at a study table beneath a two-story replica of Michelangelo’s David originally meant for a suburban mall), I read Conrad Aiken’s “Morning Song of Senlin,” which opens:
It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
I arise, I face the sunrise,
And do the things my fathers learned to do. Then I started to play with the patterning, the various elements of form that contribute to elaboration and orchestration. My philosopher of choice is the first one, Anaximander. She says, “I am plain as a pine plank.” “Whoever said such a thing?” says Bjorn. I was feeling my way out of the restrictive assumptions of mimetic realism. The novel is a gorgeous example of disrupted form, a dramatic riposte to conventions of mimetic realism, represented in the text by the malaise of Anglo-Canadian neocolonialism. This story was written in 1983, in longhand, in a little many-windowed conservatory at the side of a mansion on Circular Street in Saratoga Springs. He is pointing at something missing in himself, for sure. By “mimetic realism” I mean an aesthetic defined by Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) and Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921), two books that shaped the received wisdom of contemporary popular criticism, commercial publishing, and the MFA workshop. Vine leaves tap my window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones. If we turn to “Uncle Boris” and revisit the topic of plot, I felt that this story was the most delicious meeting between the picaresque and the marriage plot. Sirens were approaching. First, marriage is a motif for the book as a whole. With a jolt, a sudden ache like a gas pain, Bjorn realizes that maybe this is love. The swirling, smoking river is Anaximander’s apeiron, the indifferent, undifferentiated substrate out of which things emerge and to which they return. Olga takes a breath and thinks, Perhaps I have been holding my breath these ten years. Bjorn feels free. What if existential transformation can just happen “because of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a little 420 action in Price Chopper”? But something unprosaic in those lines, pattern and rhythm, inspired me. It was perverse, comic, enigmatic, and, like all things to do with dogs, open to myriad anthropomorphic interpretations. I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:
How small and white my face! Themes are not premises; they are conceits. Our tendency to sentimentalize often veils obtuse facts. The commonplace show-don’t-tell rule originated with Lubbock, Ford Madox Ford, and the dramatic imperatives of early-20th-century literary Modernism. (What I really think about love is not a question that interests me. What humans think of as reality is a nostalgic retro-formation, a still-shot from the movie. Clark Blaise and his wife Bharati Mukherjee lived there, though Bharati was away teaching in Iowa at the time. In 16 Categories of Desire (2000), the top-level theme is liberating oneself from love. What an artist enjoys is creating complexity but keeping it under control. The narrator (who is also a philosopher manqué, a journalist manqué, and a lover manqué) was rather fun to write, his self-confessed failings a bit of an in-joke for the author who had begun to feel that not being able to write a straight story might actually be the sign of a higher calling. Olga sees that he is smiling and thinks, Oh, Bjorn is being idiotically sentimental or just idiotic. I was mired in the conventions of what Northrop Frye called the low mimetic mode and sick of it. While waves far off in a pale rose twilight
Crash on a white sand shore. I didn’t suddenly have a personal revelation about love and marriage. But, in the Canadian context, Aquin and Cohen were divine eccentrics. He understands that he is giving up on himself, and that, paradoxically, he has never felt more like himself. I think “Uncle Boris” has something like 18 points of view. In the last paragraph, the narrator returns: “Four couples get married under the tree, a mass expression of baseless, irrational optimism.” Bjorn’s psychopathic brother murders one of the catering assistants with a pitchfork, but “everyone lives happily ever after. We inhabit a universe of phenomena that rise, take form, change form, and dissolve. There are other plots with each of the remaining children. First, everything gets misty (twice, “misty” and “mist”). Olga feels a pang of compassion. You learn to make your own map. The singular beauty of his work was a compelling reason to find out more. A refrain creates steps, rhythm. Pretty boring except that, just above the group, stretched along a tree branch, there’s a bearded, smiling goofball. He and Ma have a sexy, cheerful marriage. The stories I chose to discuss are “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” (1985), from the collection of the same name, since it marked a major transition toward his liberation from traditional narrative form, and “Uncle Boris Up in a Tree,” from his most recent collection, Savage Love (2013), in order to see where this trajectory has so far taken him. He feels suddenly free. Then I read Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers (1966), which suddenly opened up to me in the light of Aquin’s book; both are ultra-Canadian, both are experimental, both feature failures, losers in the grip of an oppressive system (Cohen’s word). At the beginning, I didn’t have a map. Sex is the physical idiom of love. I went home and began a story with a refrain, and that got published, which rather convinced me I was onto something. Yet I was aware that on the other side of literature there existed a vast trove of ironic third-person, single- and multiple-character texts. The dog attempting to hold the man under water is an image of a mysterious singularity too complex to be fully represented. My Saskatoon girlfriend was in my mind, along with memories of the Mendel Art Gallery and the slaughterhouse. You both try to translate but without a lexicon. No one has ever understood Bjorn as well as Bjorn 2. Is there really a story the narrator is missing? Most of what appears thematically in my stories bears little relation to what I might believe. At the story’s close, they find themselves in a Price Chopper grocery store fretting over a woman, jealous and paranoid, but as the scene advances, a fresh wind blows through, infiltrating the diction. What if the ancient rite of marriage is really magical? It is significant that much of Gombrowicz’s life was spent in poverty, self-exiled from his own country. Not really. It occurs to her that Bjorn can see his death coming toward him. Think of them as musical motifs. What does it mean to be a human being? All my life I have seen my death coming toward me. I can’t imagine how they survived at all in that river. And breaking the form is liberating. Early on (reading myself as a distant other), I seemed most comfortable in a first-person, single-character narrative. “My wife and I decide to separate and then suddenly we are almost happy together.” You use this striking sentence repeatedly to anchor and reorient the story. Don’t mistake me. For a while.”
This is maybe close to the nub of how I write. I saw The Tempest at Stratford in Ontario; they staged a gorgeous wedding scene at the end. It’s one approach to writing, with its own advantages and limitations, just not an approach that suits me. Then “words that break the form.” What form? And you can see why my protagonist in “Dog Attempts” has to be such an interrupted person. One eye on the gods, one eye on the human comedy, and one eye on the punning use of the word form in both life and art. It’s like the finger of God reaching out of the firmament. Everything was deep in snow, and so cold that people ran extension cords from their houses to the street to plug in their cars’ block heaters. After some experiments in short stories, I cracked the code with The Life and Times of Captain N., which is third-person-multiple on steroids, with perhaps a dozen narrative points of view or modes, including the narrator at two different ages, two first-person threads, letters, and interpolated essays (which I learned to write from Hermann Broch). That was my early learning curve. I thought it might freeze in the frigid air. Three teenagers, two boys and a girl, were running along the ice. Shelby loosened his scarf. He said something about the magical charm of atmospheres, how things might change for no reason except that you suddenly felt better, because of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a little 420 action in Price Chopper and customers turning into people, against all odds, and holding conversations. Two of them end in a wedding. They talked of love and poetry in the old way, watching Majory Sass who seemed to be exchanging email addresses or phone numbers with the checkout boy. The current summit of this line of development (I am not dead yet) coincided with my discovery of Witold Gombrowicz, especially his diaries, in which he presents himself as a self in conflict with form — form here meaning both literary form and social and political expectations (the unconscious universal social pressure to fill family, community, and patriotic roles) — this conflict intensely complicated by the fact that we’re born with a formal imperative, an inborn aesthetic impulse to fulfill form (the theme of his 1965 novel Cosmos). Some such conflict scenario figures in every story I write, hence the freedom and entrapment axis. It is morning. A year later, I heard from a friend whose wife was a nurse in Saskatoon that man and dog had reunited, and the dog had taken to leading him into brick walls. The kernel for that story came from a photo-bombing site on the internet, where I noticed a picture of a darkly clad family in a row with a barn behind, late 19th century, possibly Eastern European. DOUGLAS GLOVER: This was in the dead of winter — just before Christmas, 1979 — in Saskatoon, where the story takes place. I write in a tradition of irony and structural improvisation that tracks back through Schlegel, Sterne, Nashe, Cervantes, and Rabelais to the Menippean satire. How should one behave? So, my protagonist had to have rejected philosophy for journalism (as I had myself, though less dramatically). I wrote a book about Cervantes, essays on Juan Rulfo, Albert Camus, Jane Austen, Cees Nooteboom, Thomas Bernhard. It’s a universal reagent. I married you the first time out of pity because you were the last of the ugly Klapp girls and without a dowry. All the world’s cares, responsibilities and claims seem to drop away. It had no more dramatic possibilities. It’s like doing genealogy; you sort through history identifying your ancestors, and you get better at being yourself. But he keeps smiling, and there is something strange in his eyes, an expression that is at once sad, distant, weighing, thinking, alive. I find this pretty comical. Any nod to sentimentality and closure would betray the story. And I was anxious to write something, anything, after spending the previous year salt-mining over a novel called The South Will Rise at Noon (1988). I am not that, I am not that either, the self keeps saying. Roughly coincident with my Conrad Aiken moment, I found Hubert Aquin’s novel Blackout, originally Trou de Mémoire (1968), in a Montreal used bookstore. The front plot or melody is about Bjorn and his wife Olga, who is discontented and having an affair with his brother, Jannik. What we think of as essences are logical points, limiting concepts, or conditional: if it had an essence, it would be like this. But the deeper inspiration for the story lies in the general trajectory of my development as a writer. The image of the dog pawing at the man’s shoulder is absolutely fresh in my mind. This is all true-ish. After that it was a small jump to the multi-plotted ensemble stories “Shameless” and “Uncle Boris” in Savage Love. —
The green earth tilts through a sphere of air
And bathes in a flame of space. In “Dog Attempts,” the narrator is untrustworthy, an Existentialist poseur, and a serial practitioner of incompleteness. Human sex is not really bestial; beasts are much tidier than we are. Also, the American experimentalist John Hawkes, who said that plot, character, setting, and theme are the enemies of the novel (Ian Watt turns in his grave as I utter these words). I don’t despise mimetic realism. Irony amounts to holding alternative versions of an idea in your head at once. Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie. Breaking form allows Bjorn a space in which he can forgive and change. What focus to choose? It’s fascinating how sex is both compulsive and disturbing for your characters, how it pushes them into risk and recklessness. But in Savage Love, many of the stories turn on a comic, magical transformation enacted in marriage. So, I ask what if a stack of baked beans tins is a sacred place? Aquin killed himself; Cohen stopped writing novels. “Becoming an Indian is like entering a swarming madness. It’s an ensemble story, with multiple plots. There was also machinery inside the garage for turning his car around so his driver wouldn’t have to back out. He says, “We should get married, too.” Olga says, “What?” Waspish, irritable, impatient, surprised, puzzled, bitter. The policeman took a quick survey of the river, then plunged toward the bank, where he promptly disappeared. It’s ironic, a trope, not an argument, the conceit of the poète manqué. But that missing something might not be a character flaw so much as a token of the fundamental incompleteness of things. The blind man lived, and the dog lived (unlike the fictional dog in my story). Can we talk a bit more about the “comic, magical transformation(s) enacted in marriage” that you mention as a feature of Savage Love? The dog was drenched but happy. I spend a good deal of time hypothesizing lines of thought, rearranging themes, and then following the logic with my characters (as in real life, their ideas are often absurdly wrong). There is a trace of a smile on her lips. APRIL 20, 2020

I FIRST CAME INTO CONTACT with Douglas Glover when he was the editor of a literary magazine I admired very much, Numéro Cinq. Although neither man believed in time. I thought that was love at the time, but now I see it differently.” He keeps smiling that inane smile. So it passed very quickly. Although you could never write a story like that. 
The magic is signaled in the sudden absence of time (root of verisimilitude) and of course the words “magical charm.” There is no psychological development, no character motivation, just — a change. I think I haven’t loved you enough. There are key words that code the change. Then this:
Bjorn, misty eyed from the mist, can’t help but smile. One can always play with inversion. When the policeman came to retrieve it, the dog leaped into the air trying to bite the bill of his cap. At its center, the self is an absence, the unconscious, a fact that inflects and subverts the universal plot. Bjorn is thinking about Bjorn 2, how they have become inseparable, united, apparently, by their inability to love one another. What’s important is the structural use he makes of it. It was 1975, and I was working the overnight shift on the copy desk at The Montreal Star.   (Heidegger has that wonderful verb “whiling” for the temporary being of things.) The image of the dog and the man in the water serves as a symbolic intensifier of the theme. There is such a startling energetic elasticity to his imagination, and a reckless thrill to his innovations in form. But also the form of a story. The deeper theme has to do the ineluctable rhythm of things coming into existence and going out of existence. This house, the octagonal apartment, and the mistress played upon my mind in strange ways and inspired another story altogether. His only problem is that his kids keep coming to him with their problems. “I love you now.” Olga asks, shyly, tentatively, still with the faint wisp of a smile breaking on her thin lips, “Even after all the bad things I have done?” “Because of everything you have done,” Bjorn says. Here the text takes a mystical turn — giving up on oneself to find oneself. “Besides, it’s true.” She says, “I was always afraid you’d never like me, that you’d run away.” “It doesn’t matter,” says Bjorn, a bit irritated about the author. I probably avoided third person early on because of its broad association with mimetic realism. You’ve mentioned to me that this story was a departure, an adventure for you. But when a person started out to write in Canada in the second half of the 20th century, this aesthetic amounted to a universal unthought cultural bias, a choice you didn’t know you were making. “I want to start again,” he says. When we reached the apartment, it ran in circles, knocked over the Christmas tree, and ate two of the presents.