Shya Scanlon’s books are ingeniously crafted and then deliberately broken, leaving readers with puzzles, false memories, and an array of sharp, glittery pieces to reflect upon. Here’s an example of an item of reflection: The title of Scanlon’s 2009 book of poetry is In this alone impulse,. What is the “alone-impulse” he refers to? Writing? Is writing an urge to communicate, or an urge to shut oneself away? Or does the author mean we should we rely on impulse alone? That last one grabs my heart, repeats in my head.
I keep turning the pieces this way and that as I go about my day.
Scanlon’s latest book and third novel, The Guild of Saint Cooper (Dzanc, May 2015), has many such moments. It’s a deconstructed adventure story following a writer named Blake as he attempts to cope with events in a post-eco-collapse Seattle that’s been infested with aliens, giant rhododendrons and the spirit of Twin Peaks. Fittingly, in the first scene, Blake steals a television rather than doing anything useful, cleverly foreshadowing that storytelling itself will be a significant part of the adventure. The later narrative jumps around in time, providing Blake with alternative past stories to influence his present.
Scanlon is also the curator of The Twin Peaks Project, a series of essays on the show’s influences running in various venues during the year of its 25th anniversary (and possible revival). None of this quite tells you how funny his books are, or how successfully he uses distortion to fuel character development. To break something is to know it. Or as Scanlon once wrote in poem, “The floor by steps and splinters, the rug by pulling yarn.” Funny and true.
I. FREEDOM IS LONELY WORK
THE BELIEVER: Shya, I didn’t know you before you became a reader of my blog and I became a reader of your work, but now we’ve met at AWP. Do you remember that mysterious open door we saw, somewhere late at night on the street in Minneapolis, leading to a brightly lit emerald green stairway, and ever wonder what was at the top of it?
SHYA SCANLON: As it happens, I know exactly what’s at the top. The summer between my junior and senior years of college, my girlfriend and I worked in St. Paul as resident counselors at a suburban house lived in by three adults with various physical, psychological, and emotional disabilities, one of whom was autistic. He didn’t speak, but loved animals, and was preternaturally gifted at picking winners in horse racing. It was something he did for fun, and no money was involved except for once. One of the other resident counselors started a pool, and we all chipped in 25 bucks. It was just a lark, really—obviously a move of questionable ethics. At any rate, his fortune held, and we ended up winning 2,700 dollars. At the top of the emerald green stairway is the office of Renaldo Gantz, the bookie from whom we collected our ill-gotten gains.
BLVR: Very dystopian—just like your work. The Guild of Saint Cooper is a literary dystopia in the vein of George Saunders, David Foster Wallace and Samuel R. Delany. Why does dystopia appeal to you? Any interest in discussing the differences between “literary” dystopia and the popular genre version?
SS: I’d like to start in with the distinction between “literary” dystopia (I’ll keep the quotes) and what’s been thrust into the mainstream lately by YA franchises like The Hunger Games. I think the important thing to ask is: How does dystopia function in narrative? In The Hunger Games, dystopia is basically a menacing backdrop against which a traditional heroic journey takes place, complete with a fairly rigid protagonist/antagonist dynamic, three-act plot development, etc. The story may have something political to say about the exploitation of children, or may even be generously read as a parable about youth, but the basic structure functions independently of the dystopia’s particulars.
Which is fine, of course, but I’m more interested in dystopia that exists not just as context, but that problematizes the story itself, or the ability to tell the story. One of the earliest examples of dystopian fiction, H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, does this elegantly. The Time Traveller goes further and further into the future, ultimately to discover that society has completely disintegrated. As the story reaches the event horizon Earth’s final destruction comes into view. Where do you go from there? It sabotages the whole idea of resolution. Infinite Jest has very little interest in resolution or traditional narrative structure. You get the impression that a major project of the work is the dismantling of its own premises.
Essentially, I prefer to think of dystopia less as a genre than as a tool for fucking with shit.
BLVR: The Guild of Saint Cooper moves backwards in time and contains multiple drafts or revisions of the same story. Tell us more about your urge towards this kind of narrative distortion—otherwise known as “fucking with shit.”
SS: I remember your face when I first mentioned Paul Auster, and I can’t say I blame you, per se—I’ve revisited him and been unpleasantly surprised. But when I first read New York Trilogy at 14 or 15 it ripped through my head in the best way. Like some other writers I was drawn to around then (Borges and Calvino) the book was concerned with the way it was being told. It gave me a taste for narrative that works against itself, that interrogates both itself and the reader.
BLVR: And then in In this alone impulse,, your wonderful first book of poetry—though it’s only poetry “kind of” as it says on the cover—you are breaking down expectations on the syntax level, the sentence level, even the word level.
SS: ITAI was a book that I wrote upon moving to New York City. I’d already written about half of Forecast by then, but had stalled out, and was growing hyper aware of the habits of grammar and syntax that I’d carried with me over time. My first literary hero was Dylan Thomas, and I’d worked myself into a frothy mess trying to capture the ornate and highly stylized language he used. I loved it, but it wasn’t my own, so among other things, the work I did in ITAI acted as a reset button, enabling me to get super rudimentary about how I thought about language, and also to exorcise the ghost-voices of writers I admired, but whose language wasn’t working for what I wanted to achieve.
Forecast is by no means a stripped-down affair, and I read it now as overly ornamented—my writing has become increasingly more direct. And the expectations I’ve become concerned with are more at the level of character and scene.
BLVR: I read on your author page that you grew up in a commune in Maine, the child of polyamorists. Has that influenced the anti-establishment tendencies in your work?
SS: Your condensed version of my upbringing makes it sound more exotic than it really was. But it was a loose environment, both behaviorally in terms of physical space and oversight, and morally in terms of allowing my brother and me to form our own opinions and values. Freedom is lonely work, and maybe that’s the most significant trace of my personal development I can see in my fiction. I tend to write about people who are a bit lost, who don’t lack a moral compass altogether, but who struggle for some gauge of personal progress. My characters are often trying and failing to find a way to move forward.
II. THE GRADUAL REMOVAL OF A SUBSTANCE
BLVR: Can you talk about how the sections of The Guild of Saint Cooper fit together? And is the reader supposed to know, or supposed to be okay with not knowing?
SS: There are five parts to the book, of which the first and fifth can be read as alternate presents—they share a timeline, meaning that the fifth part picks up where the first part leaves off, only many things have been changed thanks to the three parts in between. So far, readers have focused on one or the other of these two bookend parts, but the crazy shit really goes on in the middle three, during which Blake’s timeline recedes into the past, and Dale Cooper emerges into the reality of the novel. Maybe think of it as sculpture, the gradual removal of a substance that reveals a subject. In this case, the substance is Blake’s memory, and the subject is a TV personality.
As for what the reader is “supposed to know,” that’s getting into a realm I don’t feel quite comfortable with. For me, those middle parts are a liberating liminal space properly belonging to neither of the book’s present tenses (parts I and V). A reviewer for Electric Literature spoke of the challenge faced by a reader of Guild to suspend disbelief. I don’t really look at it that way. I don’t think sympathy with the book’s characters and themes should preclude enjoyment and observation of the book’s mechanics. It certainly doesn’t when I’m reading, and it’s not what I look for in fiction.
BLVR: If we are removing memory, then why is the TV character left? Is the TV character more durable than Blake’s own memories?
SS: I think that’s one way to look at it. The media we grow up with has just as much impact on our character as the street we live on, or the food we eat. Media is how we learn about what makes stories story-like, and what makes characters (and people) sympathetic. In The Guild of Saint Cooper, memory is being ordered around a particular element that was obscured by all the other stuff of life. But I don’t think that this is something that could really happen in Blake’s world without the intentional presence of the author. The space wherein Dale Cooper becomes more real and Blake’s history changes to suit it is one that’s shared by the fiction and the author. It’s not either of ours alone.
BLVR: You’ve written a wonderful essay for The Believer about your obsession with Twin Peaks, and you take its FBI-agent/detective protagonist, Dale Cooper, as a character in Guild. Tell me more about how you decided to use Cooper in particular in your book, and why he was a good foil for your protagonist, Blake.
SS: I’m glad you asked this because it gives me an opportunity to talk about gut instincts. The truth is, I didn’t plan to use Cooper in the book any farther than Russell Jonskin’s obsession with him. Had I stuck to that plan, the book would have been far more conventional. At the time, I was living on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side, and I remember when the idea to make good on Russell’s strange delusion took root. A friend of mine was visiting the city, and we were sitting on the stoop out front—it was very late at night—watching the neighbor kids deal drugs in front of a closed bodega a few buildings down. I was riffing on the idea, joking about it, saying “what if,” and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed inevitable. My friend and I had a good laugh, both knowing that I was essentially torpedoing any chance the book had to reach a broad audience. It’s now of course the core of the narrative. It’s impossible to think of it without this structural device. And I’m very pleased I hit upon the idea, and pleased to have followed through. I know that only partially answers your question, but it was something I wanted to get off my chest.
III. PEOPLE THAT GESTURE BEYOND THE TEXT
BLVR: I don’t know where you’ll stand on this, but I think The Guild of Saint Cooper is a nearly perfect feminist book. You subvert mother-wife-girlfriend tropes seemingly effortlessly. Was this a deliberate strategy?
SS: I had a far more deliberate feminist message in Forecast. There the female protagonist was essentially hounded on all sides by men who “mean well,” and whose power (and hence threat) came exactly from not fitting into the power dynamic expected of her. In Guild my intention was just to capture what I thought of as honest portraits of people, both men and women, struggling to make sense of their lives in the situation I’d created for them. I’m delighted you see the female characters as subversive in some way. To me that just means they’re believable, that I was successful on some level of creating, in a small amount of space, people that gestured beyond the text.
BLVR: In the show Cooper had a thing for underage girls, and so does Blake—at least two of his love interests in the book shift around in age and are, it seems, teenagers, though sometimes they’re younger. I understood this as Blake being trapped in a nostalgia loop in the city of his youth, and I thought you got away with it and made it really funny. Were you concerned by how wrong that might have gone?
SS: Another inspiration for the book was John Ruskin, a Victorian thinker, art critic, and ultimately one of the major forces behind the Arts & Crafts movement. He too was obsessed by young girls, perhaps even more so than his friend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, whose fixation on young women is of course notorious. Both men have been accused of being stuck in a kind of suspended adolescence, emotionally, and as with Dale Cooper, I think there’s something about an adult male with childlike sensibilities or temperament for whom real adult women would be odd, even scary, or in the case of Blake, perhaps a bit “too real.” So you’re right, there’s a nostalgia to it, but there’s also a reluctance to confront death or deal responsibly with one’s own situation. I wasn’t concerned about it while writing, but certain readers have pointed it out, and early readers even convinced me to scale it back a bit, which for better or worse, I did. I also thought it was an important element to balance out the more sympathetic parts of Blake’s character. For all its dystopian themes and setting, Guild isn’t a particularly dark book on the whole, but I didn’t want it to be overly light hearted, either, or there wouldn’t be the pathology I needed to bring life and heft to Blake’s emotional ambivalence.
BLVR: Can you talk about why Blake and Blake have the same name? I found this to be an intensely rich and interesting device for doubling, comparing, erasing etc., the two characters, as well as an interesting feminist point. And it was just a massive kick in the teeth for the rules of how books are supposed to work. The moment I realized it wasn’t a mistake was the moment I got really excited about Guild, and a little scared about where we were going.
SS: The basic impulse for having two Blakes was to destabilize the reader, but as you indicate, it opened up a lot of interesting opportunities for weirdness. Blake leaves, and Blake stays. Blake seeks ways to undermine the Lights, and Blake works for the Lights. Blake is disappointed that Blake isn’t writing. Blake wants to fuck Blake. I like your use of the word “erase”, and I think there’s something to it. Many of the Blake/Blake inversions do seem to cancel one another out, acting on a small scale as the book does on a larger one—with the second present tense section (Part V) erasing the plot lines of the first part through rearrangement of its motifs, characters, and settings. I hope you weren’t too scared!
BLVR: No, no. Only in a good way.
Valerie Stivers is a writer and editor living in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Her journalism has appeared in places including Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, The New York Times, Elle and The Paris Review Daily. Her blog, An Anthology of Clouds, whose title is stolen from this poem by Timothy Donnelly, catalogs and reviews every book she reads in a year. Recent highlights include a review of Binary Star by Sarah Gerard, and Mitko, by Garth Greenwell. She is currently at work on a novel.