This reader is responding to an answer I gave to Rob McClennan as part of his 12 or 20 Questions series. You can read the entire interview at the link. However, here’s an excerpt to the bit that provoked a question:
Fiction…is the more demanding art form, at least for me. It’s rooted in deeper traditions, and the risks you take leave more at stake than just personal embarrassment, or someone taking issue with an idea you have. When you’re writing fiction, you’re sitting in the room with all the ancestors, the lineage going all the way back to Homer, to the Old Testament, Christ’s parables, the myths and legends that form the foundations behind the fundamental assumptions we use to create a reality for ourselves. So, you’re adding a patch to that quilt, as you stretch and bend it. It’s a really demanding moment.
Several people have found this answer surprising. My memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, handles heavy themes, not least of which is the Holocaust. The belief is that themes, not mediums, determine difficulty.
There’s truth to that assumption, though my novels also handle themes like sexual assault, domestic violence, collapsing identity, wartime trauma, family dysfunction, religion, artistic process, etc.
I’m sure there are writers who find memoir-writing impossible. Writing my memoir was frightening; however, I could do it, whereas I can’t write poetry without it sounding like a nursery rhyme, bad rap song or random grocery list. I don’t bother with it. It’s too demanding.
Demanding how? I think it’s important to separate emotional demands from technical ones. They’re related, sure, but I find it much easier to say “this hurts” or “here’s where I messed up” or “here are my flaws” than implementing the scalpel, rib shears, protractor and carpenter square necessary to write even a short story of a few hundred words.
Of course, the demands are largely determined by me.
I’m aware and respectful of traditions, use a fair amount of allusion in my fiction, and when I draw water from the well that is the English language, I let the pail sink for a while before drawing it up. I’m bored otherwise.
At the same time, I think there’s an important note in English that colors my awareness of the past, as the words we use to categorize prose are fiction and non-fiction. That implies the default form is fiction, while the other form is its negation.
Imagine if, instead of saying vegetable, we used non-fruit or something. Fruit would clearly be the primary reference point.
To me, fiction is the primary reference point. The great lessons in Western civilization come in stories. Myths, fables, parables and allegories make up the reference points that both progress and define our culture, and we engage in much more soul searching and theoretical “what if” in our fiction than we do in our laws, news reports or histories. American philosophy—Emerson or Thoreau—is blithe stuff compared to Moby Dick or Huck Finn. Homer and Sophocles get me going much more than do Aristotle or Kant.
It’s true that a great historiographer must use her imagination to connect one dot to the next while arguing for some cause. Historiography is demanding, but I’m not an historiographer. I don’t have that kind of mind. I’m an artist, and when I want to put myself to the test, I try writing fiction. It’s sad that more people don’t read it, and that economic and social obstacles have prevented me from writing more than I have, but that doesn’t change what I find engaging.
I think the best example of what I mean should come from writers I admire. If we compare Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory to Lolita, I think we’ll find he’s working much harder in Lolita. Dostoevsky hardly breaks a sweat in The House of the Dead, even when he’s describing gruesome scenes. But in his great novels, he’s carrying massive stones up the hill.
Some writers who find memoirs more demanding than novels might come up with examples of novelists who have it easy compared to their memoirs. I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
Ultimately, art is a kind of perversion in which the artist creates some problem and tries to deal with it, usually alone. Notice that dealing with it is different from solving. Beware artists who think they’ve got something figured out.
In the weeks following the release of my recent memoir, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen, three readers asked me (in different places, unaware of each other) exactly the same question: “Have you seen Joker?” These readers wondered if I identified with Arther Fleck, The Joker.
The short answer is yes, I did identify with that character. Obviously, it’s complicated, and I have a lot to say about this question. I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free.
Todd Phillips’s Joker provokes the audience to sympathize with a remorseless killer. Along the way, it considers a number of interconnected issues: income inequality, urban decay, the disintegration of personal and collective morality, the abandonment of the unfortunate, and the experience of mental illness. Socio-economically, Gotham doesn’t seem to have a middle class, just an über-class of politicians and financial sector cretins, then a massive working class of single moms, shopkeepers, random commuters and clowns. With few exceptions, most everyone is deplorable.
Arthur Fleck, the Joker, is a victim of child abuse. He suffers from a cocktail of mental illnesses. His tic is a joyless laugh that seems to hurt his body. He can barely function, even in a job—he’s a “professional” clown— that does not require him to do much besides wear a disguise. Most people abuse, berate, isolate or laugh at him.
Gotham’s citizens are exhausted from struggle but quick to sneer at others. Fleck ends up on television when a recording of his flop at an open mic is sent to a talk show. The host publicly ridicules Fleck. No one shows him any real affection. The person nicest to him, another clown, is merely civil.
The film tries to provoke a brand of sympathy that’s part of a primitive, pathological and cult-like ethos: it asks for whole acceptance of Fleck. Another filmmaker could leave us empathizing with a man who descends to madness following an abusive childhood. But Phillips either dares or invites us to feel good about Fleck’s murders.
After all, his targets are the people we love to blame: grifters, influencers, privileged douchebags, abusers and liars. His first killing of a “financial sector cretin” can pass as an act of self-defense, but subsequent murders are acts of fury against “the awful.”
Fleck asks, without any irony, why the masses care about the people he has killed. One of Fleck’s victims tries to reason with him: not everyone is awful. In the context of the film, the words ring hollow: the few characters who fit that description—a single mom and a dwarfish clown—are merely innocuous.
When Fleck tells this victim, “You’re awful,” the man says, “You don’t know the first thing about me, pal.” It’s true. The film doesn’t explore that victim to any nuance. The audience joins Fleck in ignorance.
As part of the film’s cult-like ethos, its moral system is binary: there’s a massive group of awful people fighting among themselves. Their divisions are not based on any ethic or value system; they’re merely haves and have-nots who look down on the opposite side as society’s true filth. Then there’s a microscopic group that’s withdrawn and mostly powerless. Fleck is a socially mobile character in the film, and his means is violence. When he starts killing, he moves from the latter group to the former.
He desires love and attention but feels noticed only in destruction. His “awful” targets are not just the elite: they include family members and former co-wokers. The risk the film takes is to leave things arbitrary: is Fleck a symbol representing Todd Phillips’s amoral world view, or is he a cog in an aesthetic that’s critiquing society?
I’m not here to settle that question but to admit that, to my own discomfort, I identified with Arthur Fleck, at least to a point. While I wished he might stumble into someone who could love him, I knew only a masochist could do it. His traumas are beyond repair, certainly in this version of Gotham City.
My memoir, Relief by Execution, reveals my struggle with PTSD. While I say quite a bit there, I don’t get into a lengthy description of that moment, experienced by many who’ve suffered childhood traumas, when defense-mechanism amnesia or disassociation breaks. It’s the moment when you remember, “Oh no, that happened!” You had forgotten whatever that is; your brain pushed it away for your own good. Returning to those memories can be like stepping into a room you always knew was in the house but never bothered entering. You find the thing that should never have been found, so it paralyzes you.
That’s the mild version of this experience, of course, because it can also be like turning a corner on a familiar neighborhood street to get assaulted by a flame thrower.
At the moment Fleck realizes the abuse he suffered in childhood, the force of this memory levels his identity as a riot would burn a city. The result is madness.
Some people kill themselves at such moments. In a harrowing scene, Fleck chooses to kill someone else. The eruption of near-limitless rage and hatred overwhelms the compassion and introspection necessary to heal. His new identity, the Joker, is less a disguise than a madman’s reality show, whose definition of humor is a lack of remorse.
Fleck’s transformation into (or adoption of) the Joker persona brings up important questions about the nature of human agency, and what capacity people have to choose actions when confronted by harrowing circumstances.
Few of Fleck’s feelings were foreign to me. While I explore chronic self-pity and blame in Relief by Execution, I don’t reveal any particular revenge fantasy, though I’ve learned they are normal (and dangerous) symptoms of conditions like PTSD, best handled with care. Mine were so frightening that I feared even writing them down on a sheet of paper that I might shred or burn.
Of course, unlike Fleck, I had therapists and friends (and a city) who did not abandon me for falling apart. Despite the people and support, I often felt alone, powerless and inconsequential; my anxiety was an ironic system, wherein my desire for love and affection transformed into self-important paranoia: the perception that most everyone loathed me when in reality I hardly crossed anyone’s mind.
So, it’s terrifying to imagine how someone truly alone and abandoned could collapse completely, lose all remorse, and find a sense of agency in violence. However, I don’t feel one needs to have suffered from PTSD to get to that point. People say our prisons are full of such people.
Curiously, I was thinking about these social issues as I left the cinema to walk home. And I recalled something Fleck says right before committing his climactic murder.
When he describes killing men on a subway train simply because they were awful, a group of people boo him, and he wonders, “Why is everybody so upset about these guys [I killed]? If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me.”
I found Fleck’s observation to be meta. If he were dying on the sidewalk, we’d walk right over him. In the same way, Would we have this discussion about mental health and societal decline if the film weren’t about the Joker?
Imagine it were about some random guy in New York who suffers abuse, loses his mind, descends to self-absorption, dances on stairs in The Bronx, and takes to crime. We’d probably pass by that film in the same way we’d pass by Fleck dying on the sidewalk. The studios know this. The only way to pull us in to a conversation about these issues—and to leave us introspecting over questions of who is responsible for an individual’s behavior—is to offer up the comfort of the stories we think we know, the comic books we find worth our time.
Some people are suffering because society isn’t interested in the experiences they’re having. From their point of view, society seems much more interested in who is having the experience. If Fleck is right about anything in the film, perhaps it’s this. If not about a Batman character, Phillips’ film would be obscure art house cinema, discussed by cinephiles and college professors.
This might help explain why so many people feel Todd betrays their morals—their sensibilities and expectations—even as they de-emphasize the suffering his film represents, focusing instead on its nihilistic outcome: a horde of clowns worshiping a remorseless madman, one who arose out of the gutters of a city that seems incapable of supporting its citizens.
That outcome won’t do. It leaves us uncomfortable.
Well, someone finally noticed this, so I feel I should respond. “Hey, Gint,” a reader asks, “What’s with the age gaps between the lovers in your books? Is Lita Avila an allusion to Dolores Haze?”
The reader has noticed that both Finding the Moon in Sugarand The Fuguedepict lovers with a notable age difference. Perhaps naturally, they’re wondering if I have some kind of fetish.
Audra and Andy from Finding the Moon are probably more than a decade apart. Andy, born in 1986, claims he was never able to figure out Audra’s true age and puts her birth date somewhere between 1977 and 1972. Of course, Audra’s vain and a liar, so her email address, firstname.lastname@example.org might be set up to make her seem younger than she truly is. Dazed and confused, the stoner boy Andy never notes the year in her address as evidence for anything. If Audra is truly born in 1974, it means she and Andy are twelve years apart.
Yuri and Lita of The Fugue have a wider gap. Lita’s just a teen when they meet, and they are almost two decades apart. Neither character seems to think much of this, and (minor spoiler) Lita’s family are all either dead or gone by the time her initial crush on him evolves to something more mature.
When I wrote and self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar, I thought The Fugue was a dead project that no one would ever read. I was definitely conscious of the repeated age gap—that makes it a motif, right?—but didn’t worry too much about it. Once I knew The Fugue would be published, I figured the only way someone would catch it would be by reading both books, which would be wonderful if they did. To me, Lita and Yuri’s relationship is a rich construction that reveals so much about both characters and also the nature of trauma. I had no intension of tampering.
Now…did I have Nabokov in mind when I chose the name Lita (the character’s full name is Angelita Avila)?
Nabokov’s Dolores (Lolita) Haze is Humbert Humbert’s victim. Humbert is not merely her abuser and rapist but also her legal guardian. And while Hum suffered the tragic loss of a child-lover while a kid himself—an experience that leaves him searching for a surrogate or an incarnate…an avatar, if we will—he admits that he deserves to be tried and sentenced, even if he does beg readers for leniency and forgiveness.
Yuri is not victimizing Lita. For much of the time after first leaving prison and returning to Cicero, he is hardly able to interact with anyone, so shell-shocked that he imagines buildings that aren’t there, and he can’t know how to thank Lita for her gift of a broken bicycle. He later sculpts her portrait not out of a desire to possess or control her but as a way to release his affection, which is probably discomforting, though not necessarily because of Lita’s age: Yuri has lost almost everyone he has ever loved, and now a stranger has given him a gift.
It’s true that Lita’s portrait is crossed with his memories of other women—Lita’s is not the only portrait he has sculpted. And Lita, young and self-conscious, never imagines he has sculpted her portrait. When she guesses it represents some other woman, she’s partially right.
Honestly, when I thought of the name Lita, I was also thinking of names for other characters. So my concern with the name Lita had less to do with Nabokov and more to do with its similarity to Alina, Yuri’s interest from his teen years. I wanted names that seemed shades of one another…variations, if you will. (In an early draft, Alina’s name was Lina.)
I was reading a lot of Nabokov at the time, so it probably did things to my mind. But I didn’t see Yuri and Lita’s relationship as taboo or profane, and I didn’t think of Lita as Lolita’s literary variation, at least not consciously.
I should probably say that I had several crushes on older girls while still a 13 and 14 year old at summer camp. One of those girls turned out to be a lifelong friend. I’m sure the intensity of such feelings and experiences evokes itself in my writing all on its own, without me needing to do very much.
Still, in future novels, what lovers I surmise will all be around the same age. I feel like I’m done exploring these age gaps and that my fiction has expressed what I wanted, even if I can’t say what that is.
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