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Gaps in the System/Erasing the Separation:
A Conversation on Stephen-Paul Martin's Fiction

by Vernon Frazer & Kirpal Gordon

 

Fiction Works Cited by Stephen-Paul Martin:

---Fear & Philosophy, Detour Press, St. Paul, MN, 1994
---Not Quite Fiction, Vatic Hum Press, San Francisco, CA, 1997
---Instead of Confusion, Asylum Arts, Paradise, CA, 2002
---"A New Kind of Happiness" & "Collapsing into a Story," http://odin.indstate.edu/level1.dir/cml/rbsc/obscure/obscure.html
Obscure Publications, Black River Falls, WI, 2002, 04
---"Dangerously Stupid," www.PoeticInhalation.com, 2005
---"Apparently," www.BigBridge.org, 2006

KPG: Vernon, where begin this convo? I'm divided. On the one hand, I want to follow SPM's own lead & do for his body of work what he has done for so many others. I am referring especially to his Open Form and the Feminine Imagination (Maisonneuve Press, 1988), a remarkable primer on reading experimental fiction, & his founding ('80) & editing (over the next 16 years) Central Park, which swirled together these one-of-a-kind texts in visual writing, essays, art, photos, theatre, memoir, poetry. On the other hand, I find his fiction already speaks directly to our condition & doesn't require the interpretive mediation he is so good at providing for more "out-there" texts.
In fact, I wonder if the larger question about SPM has to do with a fundamental category mistake. To twist that Franciscan cliché, he may be IN the avant-garde but not OF it. You don't need a surreal weatherman to know which way the wind blows in his tales. For over 20 years & 20 books he has been mapping how the mass media blitzkreigs us; how the flow of the Tao & the quest of the Grail twist through the roads to horror & madness & laughter so obscene you run out of the house screaming; how traditional narrative flattens, fictionalizes & trivializes our actual experience; how imagination wins the day in these wacky po-mo set-ups set against the realms of love & intimacy, sex & fear; how the gifts of Dionysus join the Appollonian order; how freedoms no longer protected by the Bill of Rights mix with the shout in the street & the Buddha on the corner eating ice cream in the rain; the sheer joy of being alive confounded by the dumbing down of American culture in every quarter.
What's staggering is not only the range of knowledges in quantum physics, semiotics, literary theory, psychology & meditation practice but how reader-friendly & synthesized they are; I guess if the avant-garde had to send one representative to the mainstream, I would hope it would be him. He's unpretentious, scary funny, beyond category. But if we go down this road will we only end up complaining about the means of production & distribution in the shrinking altie scene? Should we instead consider that Martin's work is right on the edge where narrative fiction & the personal essay overlap & go from there?

VF: With Stephen-Paul Martin, you can start anywhere because the scope of
his work and the range of his thinking are so vast. Let's start in the middle, with your comment about his being in the avant-garde but not of it. Martin, like Borges, has combined the short story and the essay, but not to the same purpose. Whereas Borges' abstractions to some extent offered a shelter from the world, a kind of conceptual innocence, Martin fuses the two
forms in a way that brings you into the world, and makes you view it from a
perspective you never thought of. "Dangerously Stupid," an uncollected piece
that appeared in Poetic Inhalation, does a wonderful job of starting out as an essay about the attitudes of a politically progressive creative writing
instructor that evolves into a debate of consequence with a colleague over
the work of a politically conservative student. The conflict with the colleague transforms the essay into a fictional work. In the process, he digresses in mastery fashion to the Vietnam War, grading papers while listening to Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Ponce de Leon's discovering gold in Puerto Rico, and draws together the threads of seemingly disparate logic and incidents in such a way that they dovetail back to the initial issue of grading a student's paper, only this time as fiction instead of an essay, and showing his narrator as capable of acting on a bias analogous to the student he fails and the administrator who fires him. As you point out, he shows a staggering display of knowledge and a seamless way of fusing them into a unified entity that not only exists on the page, but steps into the world outside of it.
In a sense, his choice of John Coltrane is apropos; aside from the
philosophy that Coltrane advocated through his music, which nobody in the
story can live up to, Coltrane's work has a parallel to Martin's that addresses the question of whether Martin is in the avant garde but not of it. Coltrane was a popular jazz musician who made a lot of his listeners follow him to the edges of the avant-garde while remaining accessible, if nothing else than through the logical line of his evolution. He was a popular saxophonist while being in the vanguard, so to speak, of the avant-garde. Martin hasn't gained the popular acclaim that Coltrane did, but he, like Coltrane, carries a thread of logic through his artistic evolution. Like Coltrane, Martin assimilates disparate elements and unifies them. He also leaves you thinking about what you've just experienced. No matter how passively you think you've read, after you put his work down, his images echo inside your head.

KPG: No question, SPM's ability to assimilate disparate elements into new unities seems Trane-like in its vastness & skill. Although A Love Supreme is casually mentioned, it becomes for me, like so many of SPM's casual mentions, central to what's happening in "Dangerously Stupid." The real Trane is like an ancestor speaking (via the medium of recorded music) to the fictional prof while he's grading papers; like Ponce de Leon, Trane is a moral compass in the tale, a symbol of integrity, a champion of transendence in the brutal game of show business, blowing choruses as the prof's world starts to pull apart; Trane's refusal to play those walking-the-bar/honking blues gigs & his decision to express the music in his heart speaks directly to the prof's approaching crisis. Trane is certainly following a logical line of evolution, as you pinned it, & his achievement is ever present. Is it too much to mention the famous "Resolution" sequence? You're a musician, Vernon. Would you say that A Love Supreme is the summa of an American musical line weaving modal experiments with gospel, blues form, post-bop, avant-garde or free jazz, you know, not just fulfilling what started in New Orleans but combining with musical elements in African, East Indian & world traditions? I ask because think Martin is moving toward that kind of full tilt, all-of-a-piece, non-stop, extreme command of his craft, especially in this story.
Regarding SPM's method Harold Jaffe writes, "Typically, the discourse radiates from a narrative core via a multitude of associations." Martin's riffing on a multitude of associations is to prose fiction what Ira Gitler called a "sheets of sound" approach in Trane's soloing. It's not just theme & variation, but a kind of synthesis of what came before & yet leaves you in a different place than when you started, as you implied. To quote from "Dangerously Stupid," "I like grading papers with music on because it makes me feel like I'm getting paid to listen to music. The combination of Coltrane's wildly graceful saxophone riffs and the late afternoon light coming in from the harbor made the moment pause, as if to include everything it would have become under slightly different circumstances, as if the moment existed only because billions of other moments didn't exist, as if space had become conscious of itself and time had become its heartbeat."
He's dissolving the line not just between narrative fiction & the personal essay but between chance & surprise, dream & waking, character & destiny, the what-happens-out-there becoming a manifestation of what-I'm-not-addressing-in-here. You talked about seamlessness: this is the only story in recent memory that mentions 9/11 that doesn't feel like a hustle. In fact, he takes apart what a hustle evoking 9/11 has become! Moreover, he's outrageous & intriguing, but that, as you implied, only makes him more unsettling & subversive. I had the same experience of Trane when I first played him in high school. I was frightened by such intensity, a ferocious riot of feeling, so raw yet ethereal, like I was just getting born.
Andrew Joron, in reviewing Fear & Philosophy for Witz: A Journal of Contemporary Poetics (Spring, '96), writes, "Martin has developed a style of writing that I am tempted to call 'critico-ecstatic.' The tales are therefore not mimetic but metamorphic." What do you make of that?

VF: As a musician, or at least a sometime musician whose music informs his
writing, I'd have to agree that Coltrane's A Love Supreme was a summary of all the jazz that had been created up to that point. Coltrane played his roots in gospel and bop, incorporated African-American pentatonic scales in addition to the modal scales he explored with Miles. The work was a kind of
summation of all that could be expressed in mainstream jazz, and at its
highest level. To advance beyond A Love Supreme, Coltrane had to plunge into the free jazz wilderness to continue expanding his range of expression. To many of his critics, it may have seemed as though he crossed a line. But the line was imaginary; Trane was working along a continuum, where the only
lines are the very beginning and the very end---which for all we know, could
really be a circle. Martin, like Coltrane, goes where his expressive needs
dictate. The "realities" of his fiction are not mimetic at all. Or, let's say, they may appear mimetic at the start of a work, but since Martin's work is all about transformations, they become metamorphic. Just as Coltrane might start on a simple scale or a major chord, Martin starts out with a few notes played in the key of basic reality. But his "narrative progressions" move quickly into the metamorphic, to new realities that are logical outgrowths of the mimetic beginnings. In many ways, I compare the kind of fiction he writes to the music that develops when a musician extends a chord. When you add enough notes to a basic chord, you venture into tonalities other than your basic chord. A C dominant 7th chord extended to a 13th chord would include a Bb, a D and an A. Once you include the Bb and the D, you're hinting at a tonality other than the key of C. I'm told that Eric Dolphy, Coltrane's sideman around 1960-61, would hear a C chord as a G chord and sounded "out" because he was playing the upper intervals of the chord, the ones that made him sound as though he was playing in a different key. Martin's stories are like improvisations that extend reality the way musicians extend chords. In a Martin story, you start out reading/hearing something grounded in conventional reality or "conventional harmony." Then you follow him through a sentence as long, lean, intricate and musical as a Coltrane line until the "reality" becomes a little less "orthodox" or "harmonious." And, using a meticulous developmental logic, Martin's clean lines lead you to a reality that seems well outside of the conventional, yet inextricably linked to it in practice and premise. He takes the logic of a literary situation several steps further than writers working in the naturalist-realist tradition. You could call Martin's incorporations of Magic Realism, Metafiction and other postmodern literary styles analogies to the extension of chords into new areas of tonality. To do this successfully, you have to have a meta-command of your craft---a vision as well as a command of technique---so that you can oversee the development of a story and participate in its line-by-line nuances at the same time. You have to look at a larger picture that involves weaving together the disparate threads we've talked about that are so characteristic of his fiction. I haven't read many writers---Borges included---who can incorporate so many disparate elements into a unified entity. His thinking is truly vast. The effects that you describe, e.g., the dream inseparable from the reality, the combination of chance and surprise, come into being through those extensions of conventional reality/harmony. And in "Dangerously Stupid," he did tie those disparate threads together in a way that was more "real" than anything I've read about 9/11. I'm never comfortable with clichéd realities, tales of simplistic heroism told from the outside, more to reassure a numbed public and maintain faith in a corrupt government than to tell who did what and how. When Amiri Baraka challenged the myth of Osama, the bearded villain riding the Magic Carpet, he got a post-millennial lynching. And a message went out to other writers: if you attack the Making of This Myth, you will be punished. Martin, artfully, places his narrator at the vantage point of an average person trying to be fair but succumbing to his own bias and in doing so makes a subversive statement about the current administration and a comment about human fallibility---more than one facet of it, actually---that expresses his viewpoint without putting himself at personal risk. But his message is strong. And this ties back to the experience of experiencing John Coltrane as well. It took me about seven months as a teenager to get an emotional---never mind technical---grasp of what Coltrane was doing. My initial reaction wasn't so much fear as confusion and a sense that if I could understand him I could gain something I needed emotionally. Once I felt I understood Coltrane, I found that listening to him was like listening to an ancestor telling me old, deep truths, as happens with the narrator on some level. But on a more immediate level, listening to Coltrane was the ultimate catharsis. I could emerge from the end of a Coltrane solo not only with the bullshit purged, but my central nervous systems realigned. Now, in writing, it's difficult to achieve the intensity of the moment the way you can playing music. But Martin in his work in general, does much of what Coltrane does: he tells you ancient truths through new forms and realigns, if not your central nervous system, then your consciousness.

KPG: Well, I'm not sure what to make of "Dangerously Stupid." I certainly feel a catharsis in the last paragraph, even if the ending is somewhat indeterminate, i.e., should we be glad that the nebbishy prof gets canned so he can in good conscience leave the academic environment he despises for its hypocrisy, should we lament his loss of a paycheck over something so stupid, or should we, as you implied, see the prof as a victim of his own myopia, the very condition he cannot abide in the Republicans he sends up as stupid & all he can muster to separate himself from that hell-in-a-handbasket? Is that then the danger of stupidity, so tunnel-visioned yet contagious? I'm thinking now of the difference between being stupid, which comes from stupor (passive), & being ignorant, which comes from ignoring (active). In Indian (Vedic) philosophy, all our woes are said to stem from avidya, which means ignoring (veda or) knowledge. Pardon this long shot but here's what I think: SPM is shaking the tree, seeking to dismantle the avidya we keep telling ourselves.
Your remarks also remind me of what Marjorie Perloff wrote: "Stephen-Paul Martin's not-quite fictions are wildly comic and horrifying. They are likely to begin with the most ordinary of situations and turn the natural on its head. Martin's seeming cool is actually a carefully channeled passion: a profoundly political writer, he plays on myth, legend, press release, and earlier fiction to show us what it is we really are." As much as I admire her, I wonder if SPM isn't taking it further.
Like Trane's tenure with Miles-&-modes & with Monk-&-harmonics, SPM's "tenure" with critical theory & Dada, Surrealism, the Frankfort School, Madyamika Buddhism, et cetera suggests a reach beyond the either/or side of politics. As you implied about Trane & SPM, they're expansive, permutating the possibilities of what is, rather than trying to narrow it down, like Miles or Raymond Carver, to the fewest notes necessary. I want to add that it's the creative use of doubt that SPM instills in the reader, that any view of the action will not "suffice." Could it be that the limits of language, meaning, abstract & symbolic thinking are so primary to his outlook that relativizing the absolutes in our own thinking is simply a by-product rather than the agenda of the writer? In SPM-realm, if language is inherently unstable & provisional, then all meanings & belief systems are just as unstable, & to invest in them as stable, codified discourses is stupidity meeting ignorance.
Let me try & connect this more fully to what you have been saying. Joron borrows the term fractal patterns from geometry to describe the SPM tale where "ordinary acts and occurrences quickly become amplified into psychedelic swirls of narrative, unpredictable but non-random, driven forward by the discontinuous logic of media-saturated, bitterly antagonistic society." Does this do justice to the wild outpouring of SPM's ecstasies? Joron, by the way, also has jazz on the brain. He writes of Fear & Philosophy: "Appropriating the 'music' of political economy, Martin's fiction is reminiscent of Alfred Doblin's frenetic stories of 1929 Berlin, in which narrative is structured by harsh, jazz-like rhythms. Whereas Doblin's prose gathers its energy from the sound-effects of industrial capitalism, Martin's prose, embedded in the integrated circuit of the global marketplace, takes on the structure of tribal-trance drumming." Are you thinking of the influence of Elvin Jones in Trane's quartet here or are we running out of musical metaphors?

VF: Ultimately, I'm not sure of the final "meaning" of "Dangerously Stupid,"
either. Martin's phrase as the ending approaches, "as if meaning were only
the static form of a dynamic process," would appear to suggest that both
interpretations of the story hold true. The narrator lapsed into judging the
student's politics instead of his paper. The department head held a differing
opinion of the student's work, presumably one more in agreement with the
paper's conservative stance. Each acted ultimately on their opposing
principles, simultaneously creating a double justice and a double injustice.
Martin offers us a conclusion that doesn't really conclude because it
resonates outside the story in the real world, creating instead of a
terminus a prism which sheds numerous angles of light on the problems of
a deeply divided nation. In doing this, he elevated our awareness as people
of political issues, but avoids the traditional story's either/or
conclusion. I'm not nearly as conversant as you are with Hindu philosophy,
but I agree that he's shaking the tree, to remind us that all of us lose
sight of what we might call our "better selves," even---or perhaps
especially---when we try to follow our political convictions. Martin, for
all his political content, reminds us that we are humans whose [flawed]
judgments continue our political three-ring circus. I can agree with
Perloff's statement up to where she describes Martin as a "profoundly
political writer." Then I have to pause for a moment of commentary. Despite
the social content and commentary in his work, I've never thought of Martin
as a "political" writer because, as in "Dangerously Stupid," his political
commentary ultimately arrives at human issues, not political dogma. Yes,
we know that he's progressive in his thinking and his sentiments, and yet
his conclusions are never really conclusive so much as they are prisms that
offer unresolved insights into the human nature that underlies the political
actions. Here again, I can agree with Perloff in that no matter what social
issue he discusses, he uses the discussion to show us "what we are" and the
curiously static dynamic that keeps us there. Martin's fiction gives us
perhaps the most lucid presentation---not explanation---of "the political is
the personal." That's why we feel that the stories extend beyond the tenuous
resolution on the page to resonate in our thoughts and life after we put the
work on the shelf. In this respect he's most definitely deviating from the
binary dynamic of "either/or" politics. And he probably couldn't achieve
this depth of vision without a knowledge of critical theory & Dada,
Surrealism, the Frankfort School, Madyamika Buddhism. Martin is expansive,
not reductive. Again, this calls to mind Coltrane's broadness and depth of
vision. He leaves us the possibility that the awareness he creates of our
personal-political bind could help us work out way out of the prismatic
traps we seem to be mired in. He offers the possibility, not a conclusion.
Ultimately, he disinvests in the boxes of language and logic, revealing the
signs as signposts that can point in any direction, depending on our vantage
point. In showing us the construct of the narrator, students and department
head in "Dangerously Stupid," he not only demonstrates the "correctness" of
both sides, but undermines them as well by placing them in a situational
provisionality. "Fractal" is accurate to the extent that Martin creates
unorthodox, asymmetrical structures but unlike the term "fractal" per se,
the patterns he creates don't necessarily diminish in size as the stories
progress. In some cases, they grow larger. I wouldn't say that every Martin
story breaks into "psychedelic swirls," although a number of them certainly
do, especially the long stories that almost become novellas. Martin is
certainly aware of the media's saturation of our culture and the disjunctive
logic that results from it. I'm not familiar with Doblin's fiction, so I
can't talk about the jazz he cited, except to say that the music of Martin's
language is not harsh, but deceptively melodic given its ability to
incorporate the disparate but not random elements in a seamless flow, no
matter how discordant the imagery. I wouldn't personally describe Martin's
work, collectively or individually as tribal trance drumming because, even
though he's attuned to "the integrated circuit of the global marketplace,"
he stands alone when he shows how tenuously integrated the circuit really
is, even if it's integrated at all by anything other than its disjunctions.
He's trying to raise us out of the trances we're in, not establish a new
one. Elvin Jones's mastery of polyrhythms is a good analogy for the numerous ideas Martin juggles and bring together in any one piece. But Jones, however hypnotic he may be at moments, lifts you out of any trance he puts you in. So does Martin.

KPG: Agreed, but "trance" is a word I want to hear the low notes on, if not get to the bottom of: because so much of contemporary fiction reads like a "trance formation" (not of a transformation) of values, Martin's blend of waking up & mesmerizing is even more exemplary. Like many folks, I want a story to swing its ass off & deliver a knock-out punch, so I find it odd that I prefer the feral confusion he gives me to the neat "collusion of conclusion" I may think I want. From word one on page one, the trap door in the center of his stage opens & down we go with the law of gravitas. He loves the roller coaster. He digs how plots don't just twist & turn but mist & burn. There's a thrilling speed he achieves, not fast but timeless, as if every event in the story were happening at the same time, as if every homonym were a door to another story. By working a frenetic & collage-like vortex---sci-fi suspense tropes go toe-to-toe with geopolitics, sub-atomic particles wrestle with the rules of grammar, Baudrillard calls collect from inside a Firesign Theatre Rick Danger radio show---he sets the conditions for a variable set of narrative dimensions, as if the book in your hand were only one of many ways this story were unfolding.
Mockery, satire, amusement & enchantment meet allegories speak-spake-spoken by a subversive everyman who like all real subversives---& exactly unlike the image of the revolution that's been televised---comes at us under the radar. His images hover at the edges of our awareness, & as we slip into the state between sleep & waking, he drives deeply into the psyche, searching for the fundamental roots in the process of perception & in the translation of perception into concepts, feelings & back again, in the way feelings & ideas shape perception. Is he telling us that unless the subversion hits this very basic level it doesn't go deep enough, that even if political changes are made, our species soon resumes its paranoid, predatory patter? Not that he would say any work of literature can change this. But at least it can challenge it, make it hesitate, at least in the minds of some who read carefully, at least momentarily.
Another way to talk about Martin's "literature of subversion" is to say that I usually laugh out loud when I read his stuff. Laughter is the opposite of polemics & why I hesitate to call him conventionally or even progressively political. Furthermore, there's a shamanic quality, an Indio feel, what Leonard Cohen once alluded to as "God is alive, magic is afoot." In SPM's tales, the stones are singing. The skill is in his subtlety. You don't have to read Adorno to feel what he's saying about the culture industry, & you don't have to do mushrooms to see how inextricably woven we are in the fabric of sand & ocean, sun & firmament, blood & breath. Here's what feels so appealing & drop-dead accurate: he reminds us that the stones are still singing, whether or not the characters are listening. He's, as Van Morrison would have it, into the mystic. He writes from inside the synesthesia whirlwind where any solid definition of god, self or the universe (let alone character, plot or setting) burns away, melting into mysterious presence.
By so doing, he exposes something that bothers me in works I otherwise enjoy, like On the Road or Carlos Castenada's books (which are actually novels, it turns out). In both cases, the stand-in character for the author is wide-eyed but anxious; he's trying not to see & hear, know & embrace but to score, to get, to conquer, to dominate. Whether it's Carlos posing as the mestizo anthro grad student who has outgrown his Indio ancestry for the ways of the Western world or boneheaded Sal Paradise looking for kicks, they do not give props to the original or mystical. Nor do they go native. Rather, they remain divided men, at home in neither world, critical of the secular materialism they see yet loitering outside the circle of "participation in the mystery." No big whup, you might say, they're only a vehicle, baby, but by not confronting their own alienation these half-steppin' narrators reassure the uncomfortable that the act of reading is not an examination of meaning nor an intimation of immortality but merely an entertainment. The narrators see "the mad ones" or el brujo from the (alleged) apex of Western (Xian) civilization, a removed height, which could also be a radioactive mountain of landfill & slag heap, "a bitch gone in the teeth," as ol' Ez put it.
Here's my point: reading SPM is confrontational.
Susan Smith Nash, in her lively retro review, noted, "Martin's writing can be characterized as literature of question, or interrogation. But Martin reverses the usual equation. Instead of having a totalitarian force conducting the interrogation, Martin interrogates what he views as totalitarian, anti-democratic, anti-populist social and political institutions." This insight connects to the root of what en-trances me: his tales are entrances into the labyrinth; they "live out" the things I fear & desire. Nash calls SPM a "Cold War Generation" writer: "His work becomes simultaneously a reflection, extension, and critique of an apocalyptic culture" which she defines as "one that believes that there will be a final conflagration which will signal the end of a corrupt world. For Martin, the apocalyptic signals not simply the end of the physical world, but also the breakdown of the organizing systems, whether they be social, political, religious, or economic."
I get the feeling, especially from Fear & Philosophy, SPM's telling us that such a Doomsday is most welcome, especially when the systems in question subjugate & de-humanize us. The catalogue of impressions he leaves me with is that the notion of A-pock-o'-lips is itself a confidence game, a code word for empire flipping its original Greek meaning (unveiling), a linguistic brainwash, a metaphysical conundrum, a word whose repetition makes it so, a god on the run's get-even scheme gone to catastrophe, an opportunity to mayhem & smote-thee brutality, a junky's score of oil for weapons made to look like a what-me-worry president protecting our nation, an occupation of foreign land carried out by American military might for multi-national interersts, hyped as a Crusade to Moloch that sacrifices innocent lives & gives Big Brother carte blanche for scare tactics & proctology of the citizenry; that the actual Book of Apocalypse that ends the Bible is, upon closer reading, an acid trip & that if we are to survive Armegeddon we must, like any day tripper, die to our own version of events to find out what's shimmering beyond our perceptors' borders, ruled as they are by the restrictions of our ego, A Homeland Security Act protecting a fictional self from the real person inside; that the I-Thou set-up of a chosen people & a jealous theocrat has got to go; that any covenant woven in time or "salvation plan" based on history (or a "conversation" with a god who doesn't answer, hello?) must surely end with the ending of time & a return to silence; that eternity, which has been here all along shining the hands of the time clock visible, calls us to a larger witness that our own struggle to get into heaven; that certainly the end of one world is, at the very least, the beginning of another, even if that's none other than our own original natures.
Nash clarifies: "Martin characterizes this world as an absurdist one where all official actions are driven by a blind madness that has complete disregard for the individual." She places SPM in a context with Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Carnival mirrors meeting gallows humor, no?, the absurdity of those in authority at war with the inmates who are really running the institution. Are we on the right track here, or would you suggest SPM is taking it, to pun from Kesey's magic bus, furthur?

VF: Well, Kirpal, I like to think he's taking it further, but Nash is so
right on in her observations that she gives me pause to wonder just what
further would be. He's certainly a writer in the spirit of Catch-22, Kesey
and Thompson. He's bringing their view of the world into the next generation
and adding that generation's perspective to living in an insane world that
has no regard for the individual or for the humanitarian values it gives
ready and steady lip service to. On a personal note, I'm also from the "Cold
War Generation." In elementary school I learned how to hide from the Bomb
under my desk and had nightmares of Russian invasions. When I got older and
learned more about the Cold War, I understood the horror of the Bomb, but
believed that nobody would be stupid enough to risk the consequences of
using it. So, a Doomsday finality wasn't in the forefront of my thinking.
Yet, I realize that when I wrote a poem or story or played music that I was
reaching toward apocalypse of some kind, maybe one that would result in a
union as opposed to a destruction. Martin, being right around my age, I'm
sure has gone through the grade school Cold War Drill. That would give him
an insight into the Apocalypse. But I think he might be seeing not so much
the Fireworks Display of Apocalypse as much as the Banality of Apocalypse,
i.e., of destruction coming not in a mushroom cloud booming skyward, but in
a deterioration of all the systems---governmental, philosophical, linguistic, etc---that make the pre-Apocalypse world what we thought it was, as well as providing us the means to see the lies it's based on. In terms of Apocalypse, picture George W. Bush as the anti-Christ instead of some behemoth slouching toward Bethlehem. Instead of a booming voice of looming chaos and destruction, we get a folksy voice reassuring us of the virtue of staying the course. The systems in Martin's fictions don't explode into dust; they reach their logical conclusions, however illogically rendered. And we're standing at the point where the characters, the philosophies represented, and even the people, places and things doing the undermining have exhausted their possibilities. I believe Smith is correct in saying Martin is interrogating. The question is, does his interrogating lead us to answers? Ultimately, I don't think so. Given the role of process in today's arts, Martin is taking us through the leaps of logic, character and history that define us and undermine the definition simultaneously. His conclusions, like most of those relating to works of process, are provisional. There are no answers except to be forced back onto ourselves. In effect, he's placing not only his subject matter but his readers at the point of an Apocalypse based on deterioration and saying, "This is as far as I can take you. Now, it's up to you." Even though it doesn't appear that the situation can go "further," he leaves the story and the reader with a sense that one might have a remaining option...somewhere.

KPG: I like what you're saying here. This sense of a remaining option & of remaining open contains a powerful wisdom like The Cloud of Unknowing or being in love or learning to meditate or as the nuns told us when we danced too close to our dates, "Leave room for the Holy Ghost, will ya?" His wild prismatic riffs, as you put it, admit into the story all kinds of possibilities. This willingness to withold judgment, to dwell in negative capability feels like a good reminder to the dread we inuit in contemporary life. I'm talking about the sense of a world of wonder & possibility diminished by the logic of human aggression, that our species may have been always been suicidal but our capacity to exterminate & extinguish suggests we're now blowing it big time. Regarding your remark, I think that SPM is borrowing a page out of Wittgenstein here: the questions he asks may have no answers but the act of asking the question changes our perception of events. Like Dogen asking if a dog has the buddha nature or Ramana Maharshi asking who are we: our thoughts, feelings, etc.
For SPM the operative phrase is "gaps in the system." He's so good at revealing where the grid that keeps us indoctrinated can be challenged, laughed at, pulled apart. In this sense he is hyper-real, exposing the electric wires in our skin when we accidentally cut ourselves open & see no blood. Per your mention of growing up with the bomb in the Fifties, his work certainly brings me face-to-face with the real decades I have lived through, not some Clear Channel "greatest hits" or some ingenuous use of counter-culture kitsch to sell us SUVs. His send-up, for example, of the Kennedy White House during the Bay of Pigs in "A Whole New Human Race" (collected in Instead of Confusion) is, however whacky & Reichean & over the top, more real than any other version of events I have read. His skillful exaggerations of JFK, MacBundy, LBJ, Rusk and company go a long way to revealing psychological truths about these men & their quest for power & the nuclear fallout for the rest of us schmos behind the fission/fusion eight ball, sitting under our grammar school desks during air raid drills.
I wonder if perhaps there aren't two kinds of writers (philosophers): systematizers who map it all out in a grand scheme & qualifiers who remind us, among other things, that the map is not the actual universe we traverse. From a Chinese perspective, of course, systematizers (Confucius) create qualifiers (Lao Tzu) & vice versa. So I agree: SPM has been slowly inventing a hybrid form, neither fiction exactly nor fact, neither system nor reminder, but something beyond both & which gives him a kind of cubist insight. Do you trace a line of development here, say from Fear & Philosophy ('94) to his latest work In Paul Rosheim's Obscure Publications series ('01 to '04)?

VF: Well, Kirpal, it appears that Martin has been heading toward the fusion
of the essay and the story for some time. The pieces in Fear & Philosophy
and The Gothic Twilight are stories, as opposed to the form Martin's later
work has taken. Some are short and to the point. But many of the earlier
stories employ the discursive elements characteristic of his fiction-essay
fusions as well as his extensions and permutations of reality. "Seven," for
example, creates a freak incident in which one person becomes seven, each
living different lives yet ultimately tied to the original character. "Double
Identity" hints at Martin's discursive approach as each character in the
Superman series speculates on the nature of Superman, which includes
speculating on their relationship to Superman. The length of the story and
the depth of speculation necessitate the inclusion of the essay format,
which ties back to the fictional narrative format. Although hardly for the
first time, it allows Martin to juggle space and time to create speculative
realities, such as George Reeves's joining a punk rock band, whose
underlying truths make us uncomfortable with the premises of what we
normally consider reality. "New World Order" from The Gothic Twilight
debunks Columbus's discovery of America through its including a history of
Taino culture, a temporal dislocation of Jim Morrison, the presence of
George Bush and Bush imitators in a sequence of discursions whose
dovetailing not only obliterates the myth of the discovery of America but
history but the identity of Columbus himself. Instead of Confusion and Not
Quite Fiction
seem to mark Martin's inclusion of the essay into his
fictional format. A number of the stories begin as first-person commentary
that seems factual enough at first, then expands to include fictional
characters and multiple speculations on the subjects at hand, along with
juxtapositions of characters in space and time that have characterized
Martin's fiction all along. A Borgesian sensibility has always informed
Martin's fiction, even the turn toward the fiction-essay fusion, but Martin
has amplified Borges's working premises to combine abstraction, character,
social commentary and epistemology so that his syntheses do more than invert our customary modes of thinking; that is, they don't ask us to simply marvel at their intellectual virtuosity but expect us to look beyond the constructs language makes possible to challenge us to question whether we can make a new "reality" less illusionary than the one that reflects our daily lives through a funhouse mirror. It's possible that Martin's thinking incorporates Brecht as well as Borges, except that Martin stops short of Brecht's didacticism, leaving the reader to determine the ultimate conclusion.

KPG: Regarding Borges, I agree. Like the author of Ficciones, SPM works the double valance, double-barrelled. Everything in the story is both true & false, event & parody, narrative & counter-narrative, a sunny tale reflecting its doppelganger as dark fable, its meaning simultaneously imminent & transcendent, an act of magic. Everything is alive, just like in Borges---words, the past, paradox, various numerologies, secret societies & esoteric alchemies. There's always more going on in both of their writings than I ever get on the first read. The measure of my pleasure is what happens on the second & third reads. Regarding your comparison, however, I want to point out a relevant difference: Borges grew up in Argentina in a very dissimilar world than now, much less regulated, a time before passports, jet planes, border patrols & suicide bombers; SPM grew up with the Cold War & the USA entrapped in a John Wayne movie. Both use their backgrounds to help bring readers to the deepest considerations about what is real & in how many dimensions & directions, just with different tools.
As for Brecht---well, okay, yes---the Brecht who insisted the characters on his stage were acting in a play, not in real life. But Bertolt Brecht, the writer fleeing the Third Reich, seemed to be searching for new ways of making literature meaningful. Hence, his output in different genres, his collaborations with Kurt Weill, his theories on the theatre. SPM, by contrast, has been singlemindedly working toward his vigorous hybrid fiction-essay form for over two decades. He may have the poetry & humanity of Brecht in his heart, but a whole lot of progressive theatre has come & gone since Old MacHeath's back in town. It's not that SPM couldn't abide the Marxist in Brecht---or in the Living Theatre for that matter---it's that so much more has happened since 1945 or '65.
I first started reading SPM back in the mid-Eighties just as I was discovering the altie theatre scene downtown, thanks in part to Central Park, the magazine he co-founded with Richard Royal & playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues). The Wooster Group, most especially---but also Mabou Mines, Richard Foreman & those experimental venues like La Mama, PS 122, Dixon Place, Dance Theatre Workshop---they seemed to have a lot in common on stage with SPM's approach on the page. First of all, a joyous kind of Mardi Gras anarchy ruled, anything could happen, reality had nothing to do with it. Secondly, there's no denying that the scenes in his tales read theatrically. They're schticks gone surrealistic, vaudeville jugglers emerging from Burroughsian cut-ups. Unlike Brecht, however, SPM doesn't need a stage; he's already got one & it's alive & well in the reader's imagination! Thirdly, perhaps his NYU grad school study of the Theatre of the Absurd & Anti-Realist fiction gave him more permission to push the envelope or topple the fourth wall, you know, not let convention stop him. Perhaps most importantly, I think SPM has really grasped the power of performance art: the form itself changes the way we see & feel, independent of what is actually presented. That's the beauty & terror of an SPM story: it comes at you in ways you cannot protect yourself from. Similarly, because we cannot cohere or reduce or make our world safe for its marginality, performance art must be experienced on its own terms. The plus for the SPM reader is that you don't have to live in the Big Apple to have a taste; you needn't leave your own living room; you're on the edge of your seat anyway.
So I would add one idea to what you're saying about the development of his subversive style: the use of a smooth surface to hide a multiplying inquiry underneath. I saw this first in Fear & Philosophy. Nick Piombino called it "a world where violence and tenderness fuse and split apart again in the time it takes for a smile to change to a look of frozen horror. With the assurance of laughter to guide you, read Fear & Philosophy at once or risk discovering that a literary revolution is taking place, no one has told you, and your mind is the central character." I think that's well said.
"Double Identity," the Superman novella that you mentioned from that collection, really is a hilarious quantum leap & a masterful trope-a-dope. Every character gets "visited" by events they can't cohere & choose to not interpret, exposing how we (fail to) cope with a massively consuming mass culture, a mass that never happens on a Sunday, a critical mass that soon cries out for the letter k which kicks the extra s off so mass becomes a mask, a priest wearing a red silk dress that becomes the body & blood of a master ventriloquist. Certainly, Superman, a character whose identity SPM calls "a basin of attraction, a pattern of motion made from a set of probabilityfunctions," is a great set-up. Bouncing off the corny TV series, he mixes in depth psychology, media studies & pop schlock, a culture in crushing crisis. Even the asides, the one-liners, the throw-away puns are not only integral & funny & brilliant, they are the "stuff" of his quanta & find their meanings torn apart & revisited, re-woven. SPM is a classicist & a contemporary mythologist in one, working what might be called a live collective cultural reference field.
I'm saying his smooth surface has enriched his improvisational range. By contrast, before '94, in works like The Gothic Twilight, Tales, Invading Reagan & The Flood, the prose was more turbulent, demanding, dense, in-your-face. SPM seemed to be challenging our abillity to cohere the text; I'm not going to describe it as anger or outrage, but raw, dripping, intense. In Trane-talk, let's call it his Ascension period. You know what I mean: chaotic, disturbing, disjointed, searching, squealing, gripping. As you implied, his next book, Not Quite Fiction, shows perhaps this smoother surface meeting the first person narrative. Let's say he's entering his Blue Train period here: a quieter, more relaxed pace, not needing to run all the voodoo down on every change. By playing off the possibilities of an "I" narrator, he adds to his catalogue of marvellous ambiguities the notions of person, personification & impersonation. Who is the eye-dentity in the tale: the real or fictive SPM, child or adult, the one narrating or the one doing, the one remembering reality or the one inventing it? I admire the tone of intimacy he creates, & I like the second half of that collection, "People in Trouble." The stories allow him to work an interior (or a verbal version of an interior or "his" interior, even though "his" is up for grabs every time out). So the narrator's rainbow already shows many colors. The refractions that occur in any subjective experience, the mind noise & the overreactions, the slights & the slanders, the lines disappearing between hope & fear are dramatized throughout in a language free to play & poke & provoke, offering this verbal I a sense of extraordinary possibilies, charged with multiple tensions, feelings, uncertainties. Autobiography is less an end point & more like an old tune he knows so well. A standard, like "My Favorite Things." You can "hear" him play a couple of choruses & when he gets to the bridge it's take-off time for mythopoetic improvs & multi-narrative dexterity. Like imprinting your signature on your solo, identity is a thematic statement as well as a stylistic strategy, perhaps a nod to the self not as product or outcome but ever changing process. In short, he's a jazz musician.
Instead of Confusion, his next book, develops even more subversively. I think this is the beginning of his best work. Not only has the edge disappeared between essay & story, as you noted, but there's a much more compassionate tone throughout. What did you make of his mother's appearance in "Gaps in the System"?

VF: First of all, how many times have you REALLY wanted your mother at a gig or a reading? And then, your mom has the temerity to show up in the middle of your short story! Martin must have been in big trouble. I think she was functioning ironically as an absolute who shows the arbitrariness of absolutes, a reinforcement of the paradoxes taking place in the story. He's writing about "getting to the bottom of things" and she accuses him of using language to NOT get at the bottom of things. It's also a way of closing
Martin's gap in the system. If your mother can find you in your gap in the
system, or can find a gap in the system herself to use as a basis for a
visitation, the gaps exist, but are both open and closed at the same time,
or should I say opening and closing at the same time? Actually, her presence
underlines in thick marker what you said about true & false, event & parody,
narrative & counter-narrative happening all at once in his fiction. And
she's the one using the magic marker. Martin definitely grew up in a
different era from Borges, one in which the political reality is less
concealed than in Borges' time. And Martin is more "in the world" than
Borges, who, I gather, lived a very insular life. Martin addresses political issues of a kind that Borges rarely did. Martin applies Borges' conceptual thinking to the social and political realities of our time. Martin isn't nearly as didactic as Brecht, but I see him educating his audience and at least on occasion creating a distance instead of an empathy so that the reader can observe what's happening, not immerse oneself in it. I'm thinking very strictly of Brecht's theater, e.g. The Good Woman of Szechuan, more than his poetry. Martin's fiction, while definitely literary, does show a deep understanding of mixed-media and the anything-goes theater groups you've mentioned. He draws from a much wider range of sources than your average fiction writer. I'm going to be picky about your Coltrane analogy. I see what you're saying by his "Blue Trane" period, but the statement risks suggesting that Martin is taking a step toward a more conservative mode. Blue Trane was early in Train's career. I see Martin's "post-Ascension" writing as closer to Coltrane's very last recordings, where he played with the serenity of his religious convictions while continuing to push the side of the envelope he'd already separated from the rest of the paper. Martin's tone is more relaxed and assured, as was Coltrane's. Instead of aggressive polyrhythms like Elvin Jones lays down, Martin's later work bears the multi-directionality of Rashied Ali, Trane's last drummer, who seemed able to play all directions at once while letting the soloist determine the actual tempo or pace. I don't think Martin feels the spiritual comfort that Coltrane expressed, but in his later work he does seem more accepting of life's absurdity and the entropy that passes for apocalypse as his work progresses. As a narrator, Martin does make you wonder if a difference exists between his "I" and the usually unnamed narrator's. The narrator's voice in many of his stories sounds so natural that you assume he's writing a personal essay. But the various shifts and disjunctions in the story's movement leave you with more uncertainty than you started.

KPG: Yes, I like what your saying about paradox & absolutes in the mother twist in "Gaps in the System." It also sets up a theatre of interpretations as to who's zooming whom, what's actually happening, why he's writing from the other side of the gap now, how the almost-but-never-quite-final say remains unattainable where the words flow like lava but end up in another shape when the volcano cools. As for Coltrane, it's a good point you're making. I see what you're saying, but I think there is deep serenity & spiritual comfort in SPM's latest work, too. In India the spiritual life is sometimes thought of as two paths (margas) spinning on the same axis: seva & simran (serving & remembering). If Coltrane-the-bhakti reveals the way of love, devotion & surrender, SPM-the-gyani celebrates the way of discourse, inquiry & viveka (discriminating intellect).
Another way to talk about Instead of Confusion is to suggest that SPM's got kitchen sink chops meeting blender daring-do. There is great variety in his narrative approaches from the overwhelmed (fictional?) I who dates Elvis's ex-lover in the opening tale to the confessional (real?) I living on the Upper West Side in "Gaps in the Sysetm" to the (surrealist?) I in the trippy "Whatsoever" to the shrinked-out (passive-aggressive?) I in "Fighting" & the single paragraphed, ten page tale of clever Justin Case to the novella on JFK. Read all together it's quite a wild ride. The possibilties play on long after one puts the tale down, as you noted. Auden called it poetry if the memory of the word or image cuts you while you're shaving. SPM is more like a pterodactyl's beak ripping your flesh!
Instead of Confusion is also connected for me by its Socratic appeal: what is virtue and how can it be acquired? In the Protagorus Plato (the writer) has Socrates (the character) argue that virtue is not conventional morality but knowledge shaped by reason beyond herd instinct. SPM would seem to agree, but in I of C, particularly in the Kennedy novella, the herd instinct has now taken on a very psychological dimension. The rub on the "new frontier" emerging from the history of our "republic" is this: we advance-progress-conquer the frontier (the unknown) through acts of individualism only to destroy the individual expression through mass market conformity to sell product. JFK's krewe of power-anxious macho men are not actually evil, only unable to exist in the post-rational appreciation of events they've created, whether linguistic (war is peace double-speak), sub-atomic (Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle), macro/micro (Gestalt's figure-ground) or non-dual (Vedic, Taoist, Buddhist, Jain, Tantric). These are the men blowing up the world with bombs "brighter than a thousand suns," Oppenheimer's quote straight out of the Bhagavad Gita, India's "new testament" for life in the Kali Yuga (dark times): non-attachment to the fruits of one's actions. In spite of the assured mutual destruction inherent in their strategy, the Kennedy men keep confusing saving their own skins with success, a form of attachment that is destroying life itself. For all their obsession with scoring sexy babes, the Kennedy men are afraid of the power to join (female) & are entranced with their power to prevent (male) even though that's where the trouble starts to multiply & at the expense of every American watching the parade: Bay of Pigs, J. Edgar Hoover, Iron Curtain, Vietnam, dominos, mind control, agent orange, tanks, LSD & test ban treaties. Events keep happening that de-certify JFK's on top, in control, principled, "missionary," right. The word right keeps going through the eye of the needle, washing machine cycles & getting hung out to dry: right steps beyond direction or correctness to rites of passage & rites of inclusion.
So I read I of C as a collection of essays disguised as a series of conspiratorial narratives, which ends with the roasting of a most sacred cow in the pantheon of ultimate get-overs on an unsuspecting American populace: Kennedy in happy Camelot in '62. SPM's use of seduction & sabotage is reminiscent of JFK's own compelling style, but in Martin's hands, they serve the opposite of Kennedy's purposes, i.e., they don't obscure but help us see the many truths. That's why the writing has gotten cleaner, stronger, more revolutionary. It has stopped announcing itself as a radical text; it relies less & less on the send-up of theories, which are pure delight to me in any case, more & more on the zone of human makeover. The gaps in the system, the interval between intention & execution, the reasons that reason knows nothing of, the Freudian slip & the disconnection, the reverb in the machine, the double bind & the double meaning, the holes in time, space, memory, dimension & linguistic declension---that astral vacuum happens to all of us & a good place to recover from the Big Lie SPM reveals.
Of course, the other side of any performance is what's happening to the spectators. Great poets, as Whitman observed, need great audiences. The give & take between writer & reader is on way more intimate terms in an SPM tale, especially with these "I" narrators. I'm not now speaking of the size of his audience, but the quaility of their attention. Unlike the suspension of disbelief or the premise of certainty or the illusion of a beginning-muddling-ending arc that traditional fiction asks its audience to sustain, SPM's reader is freer in point of view: more (active) collaborator than (passive) consumer, a co-producer of information, even if that information only exists in provisional form, a form that doesn't exist at all until the collaboration with the text occurs. He's not talking down to the reader; he's urging his readers to see themselves as peers & part of the event. Enter the text? This is indeed disturbing because this rapport is more intimate than most reading. Instead of pushing that obsolete subject-object relationship, SPM keeps showing us that information in its truest form is mad flow, too ecstatic to congeal into a system of knowledge, too much a changeling to support a knowledge-is-power formulation. Instead of confusion he "reminds" the systematizer in us all that resistance to oppressive power is found in sharing the fluidity of information in its most authentic, most evolving form as it moves back & forth between the facing mirrors.
Another way to talk about the theme of the book is to suggest that the confusion the tales generate is a kind of theatre, a benign & therapeutic playhouse. The world of the page gives us time to sort things out whereas real world confusion can be deadly, especially since mainstream time mechanisms rush us through the confusion so brusquely that we have no time to explore & absorb & own it. Are his stories suggesting an alternative to mainstream confusion, offering us a designed confusion that asks us to see what's there---both on the page and in their response? To echo the Jimi Hendrix line from "Manic Depression," "Is it love, baby, or just confusion?" Can we say that the love in the confusion he offers us is a gap in the system, a timeless verbal zone in which the labyrinth we find ourselves in is less a death trap & more a playful challenge, a cocktail party of laughter & smoke spilling out from the next room, a stranger you find attractive calling your name out loud?

VF: I think any creative act is an act of love, of affirmation. Even a
writer with Celine's nihilism expresses love by taking up the pen, the
typewriter or the computer keyboard. Otherwise, why bother? Playing coed
softball and downing lots of beer and pizza are easier and more fun than
trying to put together a piece of literature, even if it's as smoothly and
gracefully done and as mentally challenging---and playful---as Martin's
fictional essays or essayed fiction. But I don't think the answer is as
binary as Hendrix's proposition. In Martin's work, love and confusion
coexist, but not without strain. If Martin is trying to illustrate that
virtue is, as you say, not conventional morality but knowledge shaped by
reason beyond herd instinct, he leaves the illustrations open to an
interpretation that is more challenging than conclusive. I'm still wrestling with the implications of the time-warp Elvis quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita
while watching the first A-bomb explode. The displacement in space and time perhaps allows us to think of Elvis as more than the first wave of the youth rebellion that sent social tsunamis through the sixties, as something larger
than the Good Old Boy with pills and panties we knew him to be. And yet, the
roles aren't mutually exclusive. But placed, as the story says, side by
side, the experiences of fiction and reality influence each other and engage
the reader, who still has to come to grips after the story's end with the
multi-faceted aspects of Elvis and how they affect the apparent time warp
Martin's narrator finds himself in. The story, along with the others, can
leave us in a state that resembles confusion. Feelings of confusion can
certainly resemble the pinwheeling uncertainties of early love, and Martin
just might be suggesting that we can sort the feelings he offers us in this
grab bag of fictions depicting displaced and often deteriorating realities.
We know the love is there by virtue of the creative act. But I'm not sure he
gives us the key to how we can separate the qualities that are uniquely love
from those that are uniquely confusion. Again, I don't think he draws
conclusions so much as sets up signposts to try to help us post-story
travelers find our way back to familiar ground. His approach, however, does
seem much more compassionate than in his earlier works. It reflects a
maturity of his own insights into love and confusion, a greater acceptance
of their perhaps irresolvable presence. The Kennedy story certainly shows
all the dangerous possibilities created by the Cuban Missile Crisis. But its
ending seems to suggest the kind of apocalypse I mentioned earlier--not a
cosmic fireworks display so much as a crumbling, a dissipation; not
Khrushchev's nuclear violence but the deterioration resulting from a lame
joke or a perverse fidelity to his wife despite his promiscuity. That the
story ends on this note underscores what you said about the uneasy machismo of Kennedy and his advisors and the debunking Martin does on them. Early on, my initial impression of Kennedy in the story was a character who knew what reality was expected from him---the charismatic, vigorous young leader-but didn't know whether he had the internal resources to be more than a loop of that image fed him by his advisors. He was The World's Most Powerful Tabula Rasa. And Melinda, the lover who, it's implied, restores world order, playing a bit of dominatrix with the baddest man on the planet other than the Heavyweight Champion, certainly undermines the macho mystique that's part of JFK's legacy. But then, in real life, many times women have intervened before men could do something foolish and fraught with disastrous consequences. Martin renders the male-female power roles as provisional as well as the others. Each of Kennedy's advisors feels his own male uncertainty. Adlai Stevenson's less macho attitude has its own burdens,
including rumors about his own sexual orientation. It would seem that love
and confusion are staples of the Kennedy story, as well as the other stories
you mentioned that deal more directly with love. The more I think about it,
Martin does carve us a slice of confusion that we can look at outside of the
context of our immediate real-worldly confusions. As I say, his love as a
writer is implicit in the work. I think he offers us his tales of confusion
so that we can try to sort through the unsortable and arrive at the kind of
deep love that comes not from our experience per se, but from the act and
process of understanding our experience and the love and confusion inherent
in it.

KPG: Certainty may be the biggest con game in human history. It's certainly where authoritarian religous systems turn the screws on the fallaheen. Life after death, 72 virgins in Paradise, the heaven/hell trap: nothing exploits us poor humans like needing to know what cannot be known. Being certain, or feeling as if we're less than who or what we are if we are not certain, is clearly a disadvantage in the quest for finding out what is real. Truth's a verb, not a noun, SPM seems to keep saying. In Indian meditation practice, whenever you reach certainty, the tradition reminds you, "Neti, neti," (literally, not this, not that) which suggests the truth will always be larger than our angle on it. Gandhi noted that the truth is like a diamond: we're marvelling at it from our own point of view, but it's in the circle (sphere?) of points of view that the diamond's truth indeed dwells. In an East Indian perspective, insisting on certainty in a world of uncertainty might be said to be a living ignorance, creating the conditions for misery. In China, a butterfly dreams it's a human (& vice versa). We're reminded that the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.
Nevertheless, nothing drives us crazier than the uncertainty of the love game. Regarding your remarks about male-female power roles being provisional in the Kennedy novella, "Collapsing into a Story," published by Obscure Publications in 2002, goes one better. The male "I" narrator meets a woman who brings the hidden female out in him: "I don't know why we're here, but the word here quickly becomes unstable, and again I'm warm in the midday sunlight, cool in the ocean breeeze, and Stephanie's got me pinned against the rough bark of a royal palm, fucking me with her mouth, making me feel like the sexiest girl on the planet. It's been a long time since I felt like anything more than a very incomplete man, locked away from the world by a deadly spell I somehow put on myself, even if the incantation seemed to come from an outside source, making me believe I was part of a story based on someone else, a character who made my part in the narrative seem minor, a story I was nonetheless compelled to keep telling myself, as if there were nothing outside the delusional shape it imposed on the world."
"The prison of gender," as the narrator calls it, really gets torn down in dazzling ways. The dialogue mixes so cleverly with the private thoughts of the characters that SPM is able to examine every silly soap opera scenario we tell ourselves. But in this redemptive & ironic story about passion reducing the size of our mind to a biological imperative, love really does save the day: "I've never seen her so happy, so free of the skeptical limits both of us use to contain our emotions. We've had our moment of absolute bliss. These words are proof. They grip the page, and nothing can erase them."
It's truly a celebration of "erasing all separation," as the narrator calls it. That phrase is actually the meaning of Yoga as described by Patanjali (chitta vriti narodha: extinguishing the identification of self with the mind stuff that passes on our consciousness screen). No separation is also called samadhi (absorption) & is described as bliss (ananda). So I think SPM is working the elements of parable in this tale of passion & union. He's trimmed the mixed metaphors & wild asides & arbitrariness of the surreal in favor of a more integral set of connections in his narrative improvisations.
In his next OP booklet, "A New Kind of Happiness," parable & "hinge technique" combine to create an even more elegant integrity. The first person narrator recalls all kinds of inexplicable events in his life, opening with an account of his dad's friends addressing a levitating coffee table that tapped seven times for the narrator's seven years of age. "I was left with a mysterious feeling that has been with me all my life." He goes on to say, "I think all existing pictures of the universe are inaccurate, misguided, and ultimately boring. History shows that people seem to need interpretations and will do almost anything to explain what they don't understand." The catalogue of the para-psychological that he narrates is not only connected---starting in the Fifties & ending fifty years later in a meditation on water & light---but the phenomena described have a kind of alternate meaning or cultural resonance. Is it too much to say they speak for the zeitgist? It's as if mystery were basic & eternal, but our responses to it historically determined. For example, his "dad" denies the magic event & everyone acts as if nothing happened back in the Eisenhower era. In high school (early to mid Sixties?), the inexplicable is met with hostility. Years later, lost in Baltimore, a mysterious guide invites him in for a cup of coffeee in a small room where A Love Supreme happens to be playing. He's in college now & the inexplicable is mediated by communes & fascist leadership. The next even happens in 1973, a man trapped in a magic circle, which then connects the narrator to not wanting his wife to think he's crazy. That leads to his finding her strung out in San Francisco ten years later, which causes him to develop the Doctrine of Substitute Perceptions, "which postulates that the universe on its most basic levels is an ongoing fluctuation between everything that is and everything that isn't." He gets his PhD in cultural anthropology (he actually subverts the notion that such study is possible) & now the fun can really begin. His new job allows him to "time travel" & after a few more twists & turns, he arrives at an uncanny realization: "But as I began to accept it, the absence of anything, the absence even of absence, began to seem quite remarkable, like a prerequisite for a new kind of happiness."
I think these two OP stories are more moving emotionally than even Instead of Confusion. You no doubt saw "Apparently," his latest tale, posted yesterday at www.BigBridge.org, which will be out in print soon from Obscure Publications. Although the narrator is skeptical about Zen, he makes good use of Buddhism's asking us to separate our ideas about the world from the world itself, & to realize that everything we think about the world (or ourselves) is a verbal construct. It's useful but still a fiction, calling for careful interpretation, which calls for humility, which feels more than ever like the only true response to anything, that acknowledging our limitations is our only point of depature, that our little system of ideas doesn't mean shit to a tree, as the Airplane once sang. So I ask you: shall we call his puns & narrators, his catalogues & characters, strategies of destabilization? Is this why his tales are peopled by Mitty men & women---neurotic, conformist, possessive, conflicted, anxious? They're not heroic beings, nor do they have the traditional range of qualities and tendencies found in conventional literary characters. Could we say the people in his tales are unstable, uncertain manifestations of the verbal environment they negotiate? Yes, they seem to be real people at times, but isn't this just a temporary condition for they dissolve back into the language world that generated them in the first place? Could this be what he is after? The stories are moving because the language is in motion: everything is constantly breaking down & resurfacing in different form. Like the tradition of the koan in the Rinzai school of Zen, he's shocking our minds out of their verbal cages, erasing the picture of the world that holds all of us captive. Could we then say this is a gift of the highest order, that he redeems reading as an act of viewing the vertiginous space of mirrors replicating their facing reflections endlessly, information without closure, information in motion, changing, resembling & reassembling? Is this the sound of one hand clapping or what?

VF: Not if we can raise another hand to generate some applause for Martin
and his work. But seriously, I agree that Martin's characters are configured
differently from what you find in conventional realistic fiction because
Martin's fiction demonstrates his awareness---and sometimes states directly---that language is integral to the construction of our perceptions of
experience and our reactions to that experience. And language, however fixed it may appear in a dictionary, changes with every moment of actual use. Even though we regard it as fixed, language is always provisional. Its meaning changes according to context. Old words acquire new meanings or new words pop into existence. The characters in his fiction are not more or less stable than the people we encounter the minute we leave the house. They're simply living in an environment in which language effects the shape of their lives with an immediacy that we don't sense as quickly in our own lives. His Doctrine of Substitute Perceptions describes the way the use of language, its inability to correlate exactly one-on-one with our experience
alters the nature of that experience so that we ultimately experience it as
something else. It also parallels the perceptual process of phenomenology,
if you use Sartre's non-egological conception of consciousness. That is to
say, consciousness occurs first and the self comes into being as recognition
of it. So, the "self" is also a step removed from the immediacy of
experience/perception and its tendency or order and structure further
removes it from the sensation of the moment until the "self" "itself"
becomes a substitute perception. The doctrine of substitute perception
itself can create the difference between "what is" and "what isn't" and I
think it forms the basis for much, if not all, of the fluctuations between
what is real and what isn't at any given moment of perception. I don't know
that it entirely explains his paranormal experiences or his anthropological
visions and inventions, but it serves as a key underpin to the ways reality
and unreality shift. Maybe the levitation incident in "Another Kind of
Happiness" becomes non-levitation by virtue of a culturally formulated
counterpart to the Doctrine of Substitute Perceptions. In the end, the
narrator---at least in my interpretation---becomes a monk of sorts who
meditates on the language of water, the language of light and the
relationships between them. It would appear that Martin's narrators more
frequently seek to answer the unanswerable or to experience the unanswerable in its purest from through meditation. And that, paradoxically true to paradox, doesn't provide the ultimate solution, either. The characters in "Apparently and "A New Kind of Happiness" are taking this more resigned spiritual route than in Martin's earlier fiction. "Apparently" also comments on the way language affects our perceptions with his hopeful approach to his Zen master: :...that I'd had a rare glimpse of the unconditioned world that exists outside the verbal cage of perception." So, once again the Doctrine of Substitute Perceptions appears, this time linked to language as a basic reality or, at least, a large part of it. The increasing humility of Martin's narrators suggests that he's acquired a more humble attitude toward worldly experience. But the experiences he portrays in his fiction, past or present, are very humbling because they recognize the underlying uncertainty of all the things we like to consider certainties. Martin's fictions are always humbling because they remove the underpinnings from Standard Issue Reality and allow the unpinned fragments float freely and juxtapose themselves among contradictions of character, space and time. The humbling consequences of his earlier work have become the closest thing to our real basic reality, which is always there and always not there and always changing. Martin appears to have reached an incomplete accommodation, since a completed understanding is like the word that's always on the tip of your tongue. So, maybe Martin is making a human's best, most humbled effort at creating the sound of one hand clapping. But if he is, who can say they've really heard it?

KPG: Humility & confidence, effort & effortlessness, clarity & obscurity: they're working & playing together way more than the earlier work. In the acknowledgment of uncertainty, he's telling us trust & truth have a better shot. You described his recent characters as more resigned spiritually, but I think they're more pro-active, more responsible & more participatory in the outcomes of the tales they are in the middle of. They are shaping events, not just being acted on. I read the narrator of "A New Kind of Happiness" as on the verge of exactly that, experiencing an innovative form of attention, whose by-product is a kind of happiness, learning to perceive without the limits of language, what Krishnamurti called choiceless awareness. Being present because that's where we are---like hunting & gathering. Or dreaming. If he knew ahead of time what he was doing then he wouldn't need to use his senses; in fact, information would only threaten his pre-emptive approach. He's more relaxed in the uncertainty; it's an ally, a feedback loop.
Wild & gleeful as those earlier stories are, they carry the stage set of "the power politics of the Apocalypse" meeting ancient sacrifice rituals, the cycle of savior gods turning in St. Vitus Dance & the Passion unmasked, confrontational psychotherapy, moon maidens & seances, Kafka at the Mardi Gras, hard bop, Doomsday in Twilight Zone, the birth pangs of psychedelics. The horror & surprise of those early narrators forced to steer the story through all these RPMs (revolutions per minute) has a quality of exhaustion to it, as if seeing more clearly was more akin to a winding down rather than ratcheting up of possibilties. The reporting lab rat, one might say, is not so caught up in the maze in these later stories, why the violence of rat genocide is not as central a theme. These recent tales are more like two rats thrown in a bag of grain. They don't freak out because it's dark; they eat & schtup & their offspring eat their way out of the other side of the bag. The light that blinds also guides. It's still through a glass darkly, but he's found the om in the home & the habit of erasing the separation. Really, what greater gift can a writer give us?

VF: A better shot, yes, but not necessarily a guaranteed one. The gaps in
the system are always there, becoming gaps or morphing out of gap status.
The closest thing we have to certainty is to accept the vacillations of
uncertainty. I felt that the narrator in "A New Kind of Happiness" could
have gone in several directions, all by staring at the patterns flickering
on the floor. While I see what you're saying about this being, ultimately,
an active approach, I don't see it as offering any "solutions," which
Martin's body of work has pretty much defined as "impossible." And the
narrator does risk himself at the end, which makes the story a cliffhanger.
Will he achieve pure experience or will he be a man staring at patterns on
his floor? And is there a significant difference between the two? I think
Martin has reached a kind of Holy Fool state in the progression of his work.
His earlier pieces were more strident, the Apocalypse as played by Entropy,
protesting what ultimately proved to be unchangeable, as the gaps in the
system, despite being essential to the system, closed, then opened later as
a different manifestation of a gap. His previous narrators faced unsolvable
problems and were left feeling the uncertainty of solving problems that were
Protean in the most slippery kind of way. You can't change what you can't
fully grasp seems to be the summary observation of Martin's earlier
fictions, while still trying to finger the slippery fish of truth. His
activity, in truth Martinian paradox, seems to be a kind of advanced
passivity which is also the only viable active role left. He meditates, not
to change What Is, but to grasp it. Instead of trying to find a truth that
inevitably proves illusory, he chooses to seek the illusory at its purest,
at the moment of its being a gap in the system, so to speak, and experience
it at its "purest" moment, before the process of perception can alter its
purity throng the structures and procedures of language that distort
perception until the Doctrine of Substitute Perceptions makes its inevitable
effect. And yet Martin's meditating narrators can't avoid the process of
perception and its distorting effects. So, in effect, he's meditating on the
fallibility---or maybe I should say mutability--- of his perception of what
is. Ultimately, he gives us ourselves and the shimmering reversible
interplay of reality and illusion that is as much with us as the fallibility
of institutional and human behavior. He gives us what we are in as pure a
form as we can find it. And that's as great a gift as any writer can give
us.


© 2006 by Kirpal Gordon, 16 jan 06


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Also online at Longhouse by Kirpal Gordon

The State of the Art of the Avant-Garde / An Interview with Stephen-Paul Martin by Kirpal Gordon

X Country: Touring The Nation With Jazz & Poetry, Election Season by Kirpal Gordon

The Fate of an Original Voice: Boyd & Arnold Enrich an American Grain by Kirpal Gordon

2003's Year-in-Review: A New York Jazz Report


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