SB: …which begs the question of just what “this” is? Should we just make “it” into a conversation, wanker to wanker?
JS: Well, I love begging questions. Sometimes you do have to slap them around a bit to get a proper answer. Or they lawyer up.
I think we’re just supposed to discuss the same stuff one talks about every day with his or her companions on the bus, standing in line at the unemployment office, or down by the river, the stuff we read on our cereal boxes and within fortune cookies: Why we’re here, what it all means, what is real. Unfortunately, you and I pretty much covered all that while clutching wildly at our seats or staggering monkeylike down swaying cabins on the eight-hour train ride to Semana Negra.
Nor do I want to debate the virtues of genre. Too much dust in the air already, too many footprints at the crime scene. So let me start by asking you—who debuted with what might well be called anti-fantasies, stuck a foot in the thriller water to check the temperature, and are about to publish a crime novel—what it is that attracted you to genre. (I won’t mention your training as a philosopher, since we want people to read this.)
SB: In a word: cynicism.
My philosophy background is partially to blame. You can’t spend as much time splitting hairs and chasing tails as I did without becoming disillusioned with humanity and its innumerable vanities and conceits. The things we think we know—holy moly. Because of this disillusionment, I spent far too much time researching human cognition for my previous thriller, Neuropath. I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered: the difference between what we assume and what the sciences of the mind and brain are showing us is nothing short of dismaying. I’m pretty sure I was clinically depressed for a span of months…
The remarkable thing about the PI in noir crime fiction, it seems to me, is that he already knows, on some visceral, implicit level, all the things I had to have spelled out for me. If most fishermen become fatalists because of the caprice of the seas, then all private detectives become cynics because of the caprice of human nature. (As a cop once told me, the problem wasn’t that he had seen it all, it was that he had seen too much. It got to the point where he saw scams no matter where he went.)
This voice just popped into my head, this über-cool persona, who took my deepening cynicism regarding the lies, big and small, which all humans use to make sense of their lives, and turned them into a strange way of life. Disciple Manning was born.
I had no choice but to write crime fiction then.
JS: I can’t recall when The Hole first made its appearance, but I was quite young, and I’ve always related it to the movie Invaders from Mars, where the ground opened up and swallowed people. It seems as though I just looked up from a book one day to realize how many of the things that people believed were, to me, impenetrable. Stuff that was going out on the broadband, somehow I wasn’t wired to receive. This came not from some stork of revelation, but with quiet recognition: something I’d known all along, and only now expressed.
Though obviously I’d rather claim it the pure offshoot of a brilliant young mind, this in part attributes to growing up in the presence of a schizophrenic mother: any disturbance in routine, the slightest tear in the fabric, and oceans of darkness would flood down upon us. And truthfully, my reading of science fiction contributed mightily. I’d had those intimations of voices behind the curtain, of a skein of reality over whatever lay below, of sequential, collapsing explanations and universes. When I came across Rimbaud’s quotation “Everything we are taught is false” —well, of course it is, I thought.
That abiding unbelief, as with you, led me to edge literatures of every sort, and to crime fiction in particular. An individual who works to restore order without believing in the possibility of same is irredeemably fascinating, the one who embraces lies he or she fully knows to be false…here, I am looking into my own face, into all our faces. How do people live with their illusions, how do they live without them, and what happens when the two are sifted together into the same small spaces? That’s our fodder as writers, our fertilizer.
SB: The question is, What do you do with that “abiding unbelief”? Do you merely chronicle it, spin it into morality tales, or do you revel in it à la post-(yawn)-modernity? What kind of fodder do you make it? And whose horses do you feed?
Disciple Manning, for his part, turns cynicism into the One True Faith. He literally is a “disciple” of the cynikos, or “the Dog,” as the ancient Greeks called Diogenes. He hates horses.
SB: Well, I had this idea of writing a crime thriller involving cults bubbling in the back of my bean for several years—so you could say that my brain had cleared a narrative space for Disciple already. The idea of an über-unbeliever investigating a group of über-believers was simply too rich.
Human beings are literally hardwired to believe they have won what I like to call “the Magical Belief Lottery,” to think that somehow, either by dint of providence, hard work, or disposition, they have somehow lucked into the winning combination of beliefs. Everybody feels this way. Me. You. There’s literally no escaping the conviction that we, and we alone, have somehow found our way past all the tomfoolery that so obviously afflicts everyone else on the planet.
The frightening thing to realize is that this “feeling of certainty” can be attached to any set of beliefs, no matter how crazed or preposterous they seem. Logical consistency. Factual evidence. Education. None of this stuff seems to make much of a difference. The research shows that what we believe largely depends on who gets to us first, and how the issue is spun. We are all cultists, whether we want to be or not, which is probably why we’re so hellbent on ridiculing “cults” proper.
So the idea was to write a crime novel where ignorance was the antagonist in a multitude of senses. A beautiful young cult member goes missing, and in the course of investigating her disappearance, Disciple discovers a murderous carnival of human folly and ignorance—which suits him fine, given his skills and outlook.
JS: He finds what he expects to find, then…We see only those parts of the world onto which our windows open?
Or another iteration of the Eternal Outsider? The Savage in Brave New World, the Sleeper, the great American cowboy riding into town, the PI who has no truck with the society in which he operates, Phil Farmer’s exile in The Lovers—or Tocqueville. The outsider cast into a town/society/reality/world alien to him, and thereby uniquely endowed to describe it.
SB: If anything, Disciple is the Eternal Insider. The Perennial Whistleblower. As he puts it, he’s “the archivist of our lesser selves,” the self that our cherry-picking brain continually edits out of the picture. The weak self. The shameful self. The self behind the hand we hold before our faces when we weep. The self that continually murders fact and memory in the name of convenience and hypocrisy.
For him the world is a crime scene, and he is the primary suspect. You could say that our hunger for moral resolution—for the outsider to ride into town and set things aright—is not all that different from our appetite for murder. In both cases, there’s a disconnect between what we desire and the way of the world. In both cases, certain people need to die. Without the benefit of moral certainty, who’s to say who’s the murderer and who’s the hero? For Disciple, whose memory makes it impossible for him to cobble together the flattering—and false—self-portrait our brains manufacture for us, there is no way to solve crimes without committing them.
[JS falls silent. He has that glazed look, as when someone insists upon explaining string theory to him, or the appeal of baseball. He walks slowly into the kitchen to brew and down a pot of strong coffee. Finally, he is ready to continue:]
That’s an awful lot of ideation, Scott. I’ll piggyback on my earlier question as to how you proceed, how you go about actually getting on the horse. To what extent do the ideas come before, waiting to be made flesh; to what extent do they hit the doorbell, special delivery, as you’re writing; and to what extent do you look back at what you’ve written, at that time fully engaging the analytical mind?
As critic and teacher, I am constantly thinking about writing, how it gets done, why it gets done. I am also, as teacher, repeatedly confronted with students who believe that ideas will make for good fiction.
As writer, it’s always: throw myself over the cliff’s edge and see what might happen. People, surrounds, the textures of actual lives. The meaning (often unrecognized by me at the time) squeezes up around the story.
SB: Do you remember when we were sitting with Ernesto at that sidewalk cafe in Gijon, drinking coffee (you) and beer (me), bedeviled by the question of what one can and cannot teach when it comes to writing? Suddenly Anne Perry is standing at our table, curious as to the question behind our perplexed faces. “You can teach anyone how to write,” she says, her voice luxurious and posh. “What you can’t teach is how to have something to say…” Then she was off, following the catwalk to wherever it was she was going, and we sat there blinking and amazed. You shrugged and said, “Well, that settles that!”
I always have something to say—as do you! The problem, I would hazard, isn’t so much ideas as the execution. Stories are organisms, not automata, and one of the things that makes Disciple so interesting, I think, is the way his crazy-ass ideas make for a kind of strange storytelling sense. The way he brings the two together.
JS: And isn’t that the grace of fiction, isn’t that what remains—whatever our differences, dogma and disputes—at the heart of it: that it can drop us into another head, allow us intimations of how another goes about making a world of the pieces; that it cleaves to the borderlines of mind and world?
And while we’re doing all that, we get to tell a story too!
SB: Amen to that. One of the reasons I cashed in my philosophical play money for the hard coin of cynicism was that I realized I was investigating a series of crimes (discovered by the ancient Greeks) that had no real solution. The best I could ever hope to accomplish, I realized, was to reenact the scene—which is precisely what we do when we tell stories.
JS: I love that. In fact, I plan to steal it. I’m on page 52 of my new novel now, so look for it at some point after that.
SB: Disciple would seed it before page 52, then claim he came up with it first!
JS: The endless lability of truth. And of the observer.
SB: All I’m saying is that long before the ancient Greeks, long before there was such a thing as “philosophy,” this was how we tried to cope with the “human dilemma”: storytelling.
But “coping” and “comprehending” are very different things. You could argue the vast bulk of the stories we tell are bent on strategic distortion. Either they bully us with threats, delude us with rank falsehoods, or seduce us with preposterous flattery. They tell us whom to lionize and, of course, whom to condemn.
Consider cults. Did you know that cult members tend to have more education and higher IQs and to be more “independent minded” than the general population? If you assumed the precise opposite (as I once did), then you have been victimized by what sociologists call “atrocity tales.” Every culture has them: stories meant to affirm the social status quo and to reinforce a sense of privileged in-group identity. The media regularly portrays cult members as gullible and “weak minded” when really, if you think about it, they’re the ones who had the strength to repudiate mass consensus, and there really is precious little that distinguishes the plausibility of their founding stories from those belonging to traditional belief systems.
Stories do things—fiction, nonfiction, it doesn’t really matter. So I guess I’m saying the “grace” of fiction is actually grease! Few things are quite so slippery as the “moral of the story.”
Or as Disciple would say, slick.
JS: But we have, at least, some freedom in choosing our stories—the ones we live by—even if we know them to be nothing more than that. If we exercise that freedom.
SB: A (relentless) cynic might say that it depends on who gets to us first, and how the story is framed—at least that’s what the research suggests. “Freedom” is just another name for bad memory.
JS: That lability hard at work. And of course the science you cite, the research, is but another kind of story. How does your Cynic (who, I believe, has earned a capital) go about rejecting philosophy and its solutions while leaning hard against the doorway of another belief system?
SB: If only science were just “another” belief system. Thermonuclear weaponery. The eradication of smallpox. The semiconductors buzzing away in the background of this very transaction. These and innumerable things aside seem to argue otherwise.
JS: As, to the devout, recoveries from grave illness, the power of prayer, and the voice within would seem to argue otherwise. There’s a difference only in the stories being told.
Your own cynicism, then, has limits. What about Disciple Manning’s?
SB: Among those differences are beauty and self-serving convenience. For Disciple, the truth is almost always ugly. Weakness. Greed. Lust. Pathological compulsion. He finds comfort in these things simply because they can be trusted. For him, the world is filled with cripples who are convinced they are angels, and finding the “truth” of anything, let alone the disappearance of a young cult member, is a matter of penetrating layer after layer of vanity.
Consider the delicacies of truth-telling in your creative writing classes, the way you need to cultivate a certain special atmosphere for it to become habitual—“safe.” There’s a reason we cringe whenever our friends ask us to tell them “what we really think.” We instinctively fear honesty. One of the many things that make science so extraordinary, at least from the standpoint of human claim-making institutions, is the way it produces a veritable cataract of dog-ugly truths.
Which is to say, things that Disciple can bank on—relatively speaking.
You could even call it Disciple’s Maxim: When confronted by competing claims, one flattering, the other ugly, all things being equal, the ugly claim is likely more true.
JS: I’d like to return to your earlier metaphor, the one I plan on stealing: your realization that as a philosopher you were investigating a series of crimes that have no real solution, and that the best one can hope for is to reenact the scene.
An earlier entry to this website by David Corbett addressed the passing of tragedy from popular art, suggesting that noir (with tragedy’s darkness and portraits of human nature at the limits, but without the attendant responsibilities) has become its stand-in, its understudy; further suggesting that as individuals and as a society we’ve a desperate need for tragedy. Much the same appeal as made by political philosopher Eric Voeglin: that tragedy prepares us as can nothing else for living in a rudely non-utopian world where ultimate solutions do not exist and where we must forever navigate between incommensurate choices—that tragedy prepares us to live, in a word, with the irresolvable.
SB: Tragedy all comes down to timing. Where in the story arc do you place the penultimate crisis?
Human folly is without a doubt one of history’s greatest scourges. Aside from natural disasters, almost every crisis you see on the evening news is the product of self-deception. So of course, we teach our children about all the errors they’re prone to make, the ones that underwrite the small catastrophes—things like divorce and addiction—as much as the large. We teach them about confirmation bias, social proof bias, my-side bias, parochialism, and the perils of coalition psychology. We teach them all the ways they will inevitably deceive themselves…don’t we?
Of course not. Instead, we teach them the precise opposite. We say “Believe!” when we know, as a matter of empirical fact, that they are hardwired to fool themselves. We set them up for tragedy more than we prepare them for it.
We all live in a hallucinatory culture of belief. In the good old days, stories typically punished us for our hubris, for the sin of not recognizing our limitations. Now they typically punish us for not pretending otherwise, for wavering in our daft faith. It makes it easier to sell toothpaste, to hold the poor responsible for their poverty, and to congratulate the powerful for their conviction.
Tragedy, especially in its ancient Greek incarnation, is about the way disaster lies coiled within us, should we fail to understand ourselves. Contemporary culture is about the way success lies coiled within us, if only we work and pretend hard enough. As the genre of counterexamples, of the ways hubris and self-deception lead to destruction, tragedy simply cannot be given the final word. So we move it up the story arc, turn it into one more obstacle for our believer-hero to overcome.
You could say our contemporary culture is itself a kind of tragic hero…
Not a heartening thought.
JS: Unlike so many others we’ve expressed here. One final question, Scott. You and Sharron have a fourteen-month-old baby in the house. Tell me about Disciple Manning’s children.
SB: Mouthy. Impulsive. And devilishly good-looking, just like their absentee father.
SCOTT BAKKER is the author of The Prince of Nothing, a trilogy that Publishers Weekly calls “a work of unforgettable power,” the Aspect-Emperor novels and the acclaimed thriller, Neuropath. His most recent, The Disciple of the Dog, has just been published in the US. He lives in London, Ontario, with his wife, Sharron, and his daughter, Ruby.
JAMES SALLIS is the author of more than two dozen volumes of fiction, poetry, translation, essays, and criticism, including the Lew Griffin series, Drive, Cypress Grove, and Cripple Creek. His biography of the great crime writer Chester Himes is an acknowledged classic. Sallis lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Karyn, and an enormous white cat.