A Conversation with Alistair McCartney
McCartney talks The Disintegrations, death, superstition, breaking the fourth wall, and autobiographical novel genre, with Kevin Catalano.
Alistair McCartney is the author of The End of the World Book, a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White debut fiction award. His writing has appeared in 3AM, Animal Shelter, Fence, 1913, Gertrude, Lies/Isles, and other journals. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and oversees their undergraduate creative writing concentration. Born in Australia, he lives in Venice, California.
He will be reading from and discussing The Disintegrations at Dixon Place Lounge in New York, Saturday, October 21st, 9:00 p.m. In Los Angeles, he’ll read at Antioch University in Culver City, Tuesday, November 7th, 6:30 pm.
Kevin Catalano: The very conceit of The Disintegrations is counter to other novels I’ve read about death: rather than the narrator having lost someone close to him and he thereby wrestles with what death means, we have a narrator who has never lost anyone close to him, and this is what compels the exploration into death. How did this premise come to you?
Alistair McCartney: Well, all my writing springs from nonfiction. That utterance right at the beginning of the novel, “I know nothing about death, absolutely nothing,” was something I wrote nine years ago, in the first draft. It took me a long time to figure out this book, but I always knew that was the departure point, a narrator, who, like me, was fixated on death but knows nothing of grief. You’re right, most death literature focuses on proximity and grief as the central narrative device, but I chose the direct opposite route. I knew it was risky, but it was the only space I could write from and something I had to write my way out of. I was interested in what might arise from that narrative and emotional distance, that seeming “lack” of experience.
The publisher calls this an autobiographical novel. Was it always your intention to call it such, or did it begin as autobiography and then “become” a novel in later drafts? Or perhaps you had no inclination to “brand” it at all?
Well, I consider this a work of auto-fiction, very much in the French tradition of this genre, with writers like Marguerite Duras and Hervé Guibert as my models. Also the Austrian writer Peter Handke, whose novella A Sorrow Beyond Dreams was a great source of inspiration for The Disintegrations. His definition of fiction as “the point of intersection between individual daily events” where “the most unarranged daily occurrences are only brought into a new order, where they suddenly look like fiction” is exactly the space I write from. I think we can also call my book a récit, in Maurice Blanchot’s sense of this genre, a book that is as much about what cannot be told as what can, a book that is neither fiction nor nonfiction, but wedged in between. A book that, as Lars Iyer writes of the récit, “marks the memory of the experience that the novel leaves behind in order to become a novel.” Blanchot’s Death Sentence was also a major influence. And American transgressive writers also provide models for me, like Dennis Cooper’s amazing novel Guide.
I have to write from this in-between space. I could never write straightforward autobiography — my relationship to language and to the self is too unstable for that.
In terms of publishing marketing in the US, autobiographical novel is probably the best category, the most convenient — by no means is this a memoir. One of the characters in The Disintegrations says he wants to “disintegrate the line between life and death, until that line no longer exists.” That’s how I feel about genre — I want to disintegrate the line between fiction and nonfiction, until that line disappears. Or I need to.
Early on in the novel, the narrator says, “I’m superstitious, you should know that about me, it rules everything I do.” I imagine this is true for you, too. Can you give some other examples of how superstitions “rule” your daily life?
To be honest, I don’t really like to talk too directly about myself. Which is weird, I know, because I use my self and my life as source material for my fiction. It’s perverse. But perhaps this provides you with the best example, that my prime superstition is a reluctance to directly disclose — I’ll only talk about my experience in the guise of fiction. Maybe the cross-genre nature of my work springs from this superstition.
Throughout the novel, you often engage the reader directly. One of my favorite examples is, “I need to find another individual who will really stand in for me. Would you want to do it? I’m looking for someone truly selfless who will serve as my stunt double during the tedious, dangerous business of dying …” When in the writing process did this you make an appearance? Can you talk about this decision?
I conceived this you fairly early on. But there is more than one you in the novel. An older version of the book was written in a more linear fashion, with the cemetery scenes taking place in present tense, real time, with the narrator walking around the cemetery with an unnamed, unspeaking figure, telling him his ideas and stories about death. I was trying to write more traditionally than I’m meant to, to see if I could write something relatively “linear,” but I ended up doing away with that conceit. It’s just not the kind of writer I am. In my re-visioning I kept that form of direct address, but it shifts between addressing the guy the narrator meets in the cemetery, who doesn’t appear until much later on in the book, the reader, and perhaps also the narrator simply talking to himself. There’s slippage and sometimes the you refers to all three of these figures simultaneously.
At the end of The Disintegrations, you include an extensive list of sources of where you found the information about death/the dead. Can you talk a little bit about the research that you decided to insert, and what about your findings, if anything, surprised (or scared) you the most?
Sure. We live in an age where all that information is at our proverbial fingertips, and I very much wanted my research and my narrator to represent that, the “average” death-obsessed individual looking up information on the net. Popular sources, not academic ones. As if Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man had access to the net. Pretty much everything scared me, or perhaps disturbed is the right word. But I also was fascinated by the poetics of a lot of the facts about death, for example the poetry of the medical terminology regarding a corpse and the stages of death. My narrator of course is also conducting research in the cemetery, and in his own head, through memory. I wanted to present a tension between what all that research, especially results from the internet uncovers, and what it fails to uncover. My narrator knows nothing about death, but he doesn’t — or I don’t — think anyone knows anything about death, not death itself.
If you had a choice, how would you like to die?
Wow, like I said above, I’m definitely superstitious, so I would never even venture to talk directly of such a thing. Though I like Foucault’s conception of a place where one would only appear to die, as relayed by his friend the great writer Hervé Guibert, a big influence on my conception of auto-fiction. As Guibert writes it, Foucault imagined a luxurious hospital. In each “patient’s” room there would be a painting and behind that painting, an escape hatch. At the right time, “Off you would go, you would disappear, you would die in the eyes of the world, and reappear without a witness on the other side of the wall … without anything in your hands, without a name, ready to invent your new identity.” This notion actually comes up in the chapter “Immortality,” in my exploration of the legal concept of Civil Death, which is very similar to Foucault’s imagining. I like this idea of doubling that Foucault’s fantasy brings up. I think that’s what I like about writing auto-fiction — by presenting the self as a fictional character, you double yourself, and thus give yourself the illusion of immortality.
Would you like to be buried at Holy Cross?
Like my narrator, no. I am uncertain about many things, but not about that. It’s too close to my place of work; to spend a chunk of your life at one institution and then to spend eternity in close proximity sounds terrible. Death shouldn’t have anything to do with the mundaneness of labor. If death is anything, it should be an escape from routine.