Chris Bachelder Interview (Part 2)

Last week, The Rumpus published an interview I did with Chris Bachelder about his new book, Abbott Awaits. However, the original interview was much longer and contained several more great responses from Bachelder, and I thought it’d be a shame not to share them.

Also, my introduction to The Rumpus interview promised that we’d talk about dogs. All week, I’ve pictured readers scanning the interview again and again, wondering, “WHERE ARE THE DOGS? I WAS PROMISED DOGS!!” Here. Here are the dogs.

This second interview picks up right where the first left off.

GABE DURHAM: There are a couple of conversations about Abbott (“The Heating and Cooling Specialist’s Tale,” for one) that seem to break form and leave Abbott’s head. But I don’t know. Abbott is so self-aware and imaginative that I imagine the scene taking place in Abbott’s self-aware imagination instead of in real life. I’m curious–Are those conversations real or imagined? Or is this an ambiguity not to be tread on?

CHRIS BACHELDER: This is a good question. (You must have had fantastic teachers.) The truth is, this is not a settled issue in my mind. It’s not as if I know the real answer and I’m hoping that readers will get it. I think that when I began these chapters (there are two and there used to be one more called the Rooter’s Tale), I intended them to be a kind of radical shift – a jarring way to break out of Abbott’s head and achieve some kind of outside view.

But it’s not as if these outside views really give you a radically different perspective. Abbott is so exasperatingly self-conscious that he kind of constantly achieves an outside view. His imagination creeps and colonizes. So these tales in the book now seem to me more aligned with the chapters that feature imaginary people and events, the explicitly invented material. I think it’s completely consistent with Abbott’s character (and vaguely interesting) to argue that Abbott is imagining these stories. That is, he is so self-conscious that he creates the stories that others will later tell about him. And I think this makes the reader perform an interesting activity while reading – re-situating the tale and the teller back into Abbott’s mind. Locating Abbott, locating the world. It’s like there are nested narrators, nested consciousnesses. Or another way to look at it is that Abbott regards himself as a character in his own mind, which is probably not the healthiest way to live. It certainly makes it difficult to experience anything with immediacy and emotion.

DURHAM: Throughout the book is the conspicuous absence of any clues as to what Abbott teaches. The university is what, a mile away?, and it may as well be on the other end of the world. For me as a reader, it underscored the sense that the world of Abbott’s household–him, his pregnant wife, and his daughter–is to him the only reality. Could you talk about the decision to leave out his discipline?

BACHELDER: Like so many writerly decisions, this was initially an instinctual decision that later held up to editorial scrutiny. I didn’t want Abbott to be a specialist. I didn’t want to evoke a raft of easy associations. If he’s explicitly an English Professor (a Romanticist, say), that brings with it certain assumptions, and those assumptions are not entirely relevant or resonant. What’s most important about Abbott is that he is an academic, an intellectual. What’s most important is that he lives primarily in his mind, and that he processes the world in a uniformly analytical and academic manner. He sees missing hubcaps and he thinks of Hawthorne. He goes to a pet store and thinks of evolutionary history. So what happens when the university is distant and the house becomes the world? Then you get a kind of relentless academic or critical thought about domestic matters, and this is a condition for comedy.

More broadly, it’s a condition for tonal angularity, tonal complexity. The style or manner of thought does not match the object of thought, and this mismatch is good for the fiction writer. It creates energy, friction at the very level of thought or utterance. There is a drama inherent in the how, not simply the what. I’m back to the idea of problem-solving. The problem is this: How do you write about baking banana bread? One way to do it is to adopt a cognitive or stylistic approach that is entirely inappropriate for the baking of banana bread. You write against your subject matter to create angle, tension, humor. And Abbott’s specific discipline is not important in generating this effect, and in fact may have been a distraction.

(Image plucked from The Believer.)

DURHAM: The book itself maintains grammatical precision, Abbott finds himself pondering “quirky lexical item[s],” he envisions himself “a father who, in the most gentle and loving and supportive way, corrects his children’s grammar,” and several chapters are named for the grammatical oddities found therein. How does grammatical precision fit into Abbott’s worldview?

BACHELDER: On one hand, it’s true that we think in language, so that precise thinking requires precise language use. Abbott values clear, careful, logical thinking. He’s a child of the Enlightenment. I’m sure he would say that our rationality is what makes us human. And yet he consistently demonstrates that this reliance on rationality can be pushed to ridiculous and self-defeating extremes. He clearly thinks too much. There’s a running gag in the book about Keats’s notion of negative capability, which he defined in a letter to his brothers: “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Abbott has no negative capability – he is, above all else, an irritable reacher. That’s precisely what he is. Grammar and syntax, like logic, are systems. Abbott is uncomfortable with uncertainty; he is comfortable with systems, with notions of correctness and incorrectness. It is something he can control, manipulate. It is a refuge from the undeniable disorder and chaos of human existence. It’s his armor.

DURHAM: And yet his daughter is teaching him, right? Or at least, in tiny moments, he’s able to harvest her negative capability? I’m thinking of the scene in which Abbott’s daughter is dazzled by a man in a gorilla suit at the Barnes and Noble: “Abbott’s daughter stands with her fingers in her mouth, immobilized by ecstasy. She is a conductor. She conducts wonder. Wonder passes from the world to Abbott through his daughter.”

BACHELDER: Yes, wonder being, I suppose, a kind of suspended state, or a thoughtless state. It’s difficult to think your way to wonder. You feel wonder, you don’t think it. But Abbott can occasionally plug his imagination into his daughter and achieve a fleeting breakthrough. The book is full of paradoxes, and perhaps this is one of them, that Abbott can reason his way to the limits of reason. This is all very capital-R Romantic. “The child is the father of the man,” etc. When Wordsworth sees a rainbow, his heart leaps up; when Abbott sees one, his frontal lobe leaps up. But the very last thing I set out to do was write a book that is anti-reason, anti-logic–if you look around, you can see that what we need is a whole lot more reason and logic–or a book that is sentimental in its celebration of children’s purity or innocence or whatever.

DURHAM: As a reader who was really pulling for Abbott, pulling for those moments of Abbott outside himself, I was comforted each time I was informed that Abbott’s heady meditation on an event did not occur right then in the moment. It kinda made me suspect that the life best worth living is the one that is unexamined in the moment (while the gorilla is dancing) but then is examined later (in the office with coffee). Too bad that’s so tricky in practice.

BACHELDER: Right, there’s that refrain in the book about Abbott thinking his thoughts later, not now. That gives poor Abbott a break once in a while, and also helped me navigate issues of verisimilitude. Sometimes it’s just not very credible that a character, mid-episode, has deep thoughts. But I also like this formulation, this “later, now now.” Abbott is thinking / Abbott is not thinking. I like the way it fights itself, cancels itself, and I like the way it creates, as you suggest, two times, two Abbotts–the Abbott of the immediate moment, fortunate enough to have a quiet head, and the contemplative, anxious Abbott of later, irritably reaching for meaning and significance.

DURHAM: I was employed by you as a dogsitter for a week in the summer of 2009, and was pleased to suspect that Abbott’s dog was closely based on your own—especially your dog Jacob’s weird habit of hiding and shaking at the slightest thunder. Or rain. Or clouds. What’s his deal? Did you ever figure out what puppyhood trauma brought on such cowering?

BACHELDER: Dogs, like people, are all wired differently. My wife got Jacob when he was a puppy, and he never experienced cruelty or privation. He’s just a nervous dude. True story: his littermates were all born and everyone thought the mother dog was finished with the birth. But then Jacob came out an hour later. He wanted to stay in there. The world is terrifying, as Abbott knows well.

DURHAM: I’m tutoring kids in reading this year, so I’ve developed all these opinions about certain kids books and YA novels. For instance, I recommend Tru Confessions by Janet Tashijian, a clever novel-in-diary-entries, and Shoebag by Mary James, a reverse-“Metamorphosis” in which a cockroach turns into a kid. Which of your daughters’ books have you found to be surprisingly good? Or terrible? Or, as with Abbott’s reading of the original Curious George, surprisingly morally troubling?

BACHELDER: I recently read Pippi Longstocking to my daughters, and it was wonderful. I don’t know the history of the spunky, mischievous, independent girl protagonist in children’s books, but perhaps Pippi was among the first. Later there is Eloise and Ramona and Clementine and Lola – those are all pretty good. Those books have some wit, some attention to language and speech. I love Frog and Toad, and consider those books nearly magical in the way they can create feeling with such simple language. Stuart Little is weird and fantastic. All the Pooh books are terrific and so fun to read because Milne was so masterful with rhythm. We’ve begun the Narnia books, and I can’t wait for L’Engle, Dahl.

Most books, particularly the ones that are cranked out in huge series, are awful. I have developed a profound dislike of the Berenstain Bears, for instance. “‘That’s not fair!’ sister protested.” Those bears are always protesting. I can’t stand it. It’s all I can do to keep from critiquing the work as I’m reading it out loud. Especially atrocious are all these rhyming books in which the meter and rhythm are inconsistent and careless. It really does bother me – I want the cadences to be precise and elegant. The skill and the wit exist in the manipulation of form. It’s not just about rhyming cat and bat. But my kids are absolutely indiscriminate in their love of books–they adore wretched writing and dubious themes fully as much as they like fine, nuanced books–and I suppose that I shouldn’t complain. Shut up and read, Dad.

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