AS WITH MOST AUTHORS whose books I buy second hand in first edition, Greg Mulcahy came to me through Gordon Lish.
Mulcahy’s fiction is, as Noy Holland says, “funny, in the way that wisdom, plainly spoken, is funny.” Through his characters’ agonies he reveals the ruse of our surrounding world, and their rock bottom falls propel each consecutive sentence—the content carried through frictive syntax. His sentences slide, stop on a dime, fragment, run on without punctuation, run over you, leave you breathless, bewildered. Sam Lipsyte says, “Reading Greg Mulcahy’s sentences is like watching the best slalom skiers in the world dare the universe a crazy millimeter at a time,” and it’s a ride that leaves you on the other side, as brave and as dangerous, but with new truth.
Mulcahy is the author of the short fiction collections Out of Work, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1993, and Carbine, Winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction and published by The University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. He’s written two novels, Constellation, published by Avisson Press in 1996, and O’Hearn, Winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize and published by The University of Alabama Press in 2015.
After reading Greg’s latest novel O’Hearn, in which I laughed the hardest, I sought him out—where else but Twitter, and who would have figured, the platform come in handy after all?
What started in May and ran through the middle of July is disclosed here now, a glimpse into who Lish once called a “menace to your community.”
How harmful is Greg Mulcahy?
You be the judge.
My favorite stories stand in denial of progression and the onward flow of time. Your recent fiction seems to lean in this direction. Using a phrase lifted from your newest novel O’Hearn, I ask: does your fiction aspire “to be outside time or better than time”?
I think all literature aspires to be outside of time in Yeats’ sense, but of course, that is impossible. Chronology in any work is a fiction, but the real fiction is the contradictory human experience of chronology. People, or at least I, know death is inevitable and certain, yet I feel as though I’m better than time, that somehow I’ll escape its consequence, when, in fact, it’s wrecking me by the second.
In O’Hearn, the narrator struggles “how to know” as he attempts to sort out events occurring before and after “the incident,” a workplace “mishap” occurring outside the confines of the novel. As the narrator struggles to determine “what was now and what was before,” so, too, does the reader. Was this mirroring intentional or simply inevitable?
It is both. Anybody who writes seriously is intentional about every word. That sets up causation. When the reader reads, if the reader reads seriously, the reader produces the effect. The problem, of course, is that the causation can not ensure what the effect will be. But, you can try your best.
Throughout O’Hearn appear the phrases “The Use Of Narrative,” “the perfection of the narrative,” “the nature of narrative,” and “confines of…narrative.” There are references to the “roles” of certain characters—The Queen of Productivity, The Volunteer, Doll, Madame Pompous, and Twerp—and to the “story” the narrator tells himself as he tries to slide events and people into place. At one point the narrator says, “Story about a place and some people and what happened. Was that what a story was.” Were these and other metafictional elements a function of the narrative, or part of a larger authorial concern you had while writing O’Hearn?
Again, both. Film and literature fought a battle over narrative in the 20th Century, and film won, at least where conventional, or the misnamed realistic, narrative is concerned. In light of that, fiction has to do what it can do and film can not do. Part of that is to ask itself how to tell a story, and more fundamentally, what a story is. And of course, no story can be trusted. Ever.
Storytellers are arrangers, organizers. When you were a boy and you told stories to adults, did they ever say, “You’re such a storyteller,” and not because they were satisfied by your animated relaying of an occurrence, but because they could see through the seams of your arrangement?
No one ever said such a thing to me when I was a kid. I grew up in a big Irish-American family, and story telling was part of the air, and, as such, unremarked. If someone was displeased with what I told, I was more likely called a liar or told to be quiet. Of course, I wasn’t quiet.
Your first collection of stories Out of Work was published in 1993 at Alfred A. Knopf. Could you talk about how that first book came to be? Could you reach back in time still to talk about how you rigged your own “system of organization” to tell the stories you wanted to tell?
I started sending work to Gordon Lish at The Quarterly. Eventually, he ran my novella “Glass” in an issue, and he bought Out of Work for Knopf. For me, the main thing was to forget any preconceptions I had, and I had plenty, and do anything the story demanded. In a sense, I had to let the stories tell themselves in ways that made sense to themselves. I think when my work is successful it comes from a mixture of discipline and indifference.
Your wife, Abigail Allen, appears to have also been sending Lish stories around 1995 and 1996. Was sending your work to Lish a shared pursuit? Did she take classes with Lish?
Abigail sent The Quarterly some of her work. She was never Gordon’s student, and she was looking for a great place to publish. She had eight pieces accepted, but the didn’t get printed there because The Q was out of business before it could run them. She eventually published a great novel, Birds of Paradise, under the name Hiram Goza.
Do you and your wife share work with each other? Who is your best critical reader? Where do you turn for advice on drafts?
Sometimes one of us shows the other something, but usually not. We work very independently of each other. I don’t really get advice on drafts unless an editor offers some. My best critical readers are Lish, Abigail, and recently, Sam Lipsyte.
Who influenced you most in your education as a writer? What impact did Gordon’s support have? Was your correspondence with him mostly through mail? Did you attend his classes?
Gordon’s support helped me a great deal. It displayed my work to other writers and made my work viable. We corresponded mostly by mail and spoke on the phone before we met. For all the controversy around him, I’ve always found him to be a warm, generous man and great friend. I never took his class though I did sit in on a session once. I learned a lot from the way he edited. As to who influenced me, the answers are multiple. Certainly my teachers Al Greenberg and Rick Barthelme, my wife, Abigail, a million other writers starting with Joyce and Camus, and maybe most importantly, my high school English teacher, Lorraine Potuzak.
What is your fascination with work and the workplace? What do you do for a living? What have you done? What would you do—or not do—if you had to do it all over again?
I started working at a car wash when I was 14. Now I teach at a community college. I’ve been a janitor, dishwasher, factory worker, lawn care worker, telemarketer, shipping clerk, and more I’ve forgotten. Our faculty is unionized and I was a state union officer for 17 years, including Treasurer and President. This culture is embedded in work. Its primary value is money. Yet it pretends, and our literature often pretends, this is not the case. It’s hard to say what I would or would not do again faced with the economic realities I faced, but I will say this: I would not, if I had my life to live over, go into teaching. It is bad enough you don’t make any money, but over the course of my career, I never expected to be attacked for teaching people things. Now these attacks are a common feature of political discourse. What, exactly, is this country pretending to?
I appreciate how you take aim at the popular notion of “profession” throughout your work and O’Hearn, specifically through the character of Poppa Douk-Douk:
There is, Poppa Douk-Douk said, no place for what is not. There is no place for anything which is not in place.
Your mistake, Poppa Douk-Douk said, is to imagine an alternative life. Imagine if we imagined no alternative, imagine how focused, how aware we would be.
This is “the language of business.” What languages are you attempting to teach your students?
I teach expository and developmental writing at a community college, so my focus is on clarity, precision, and simplicity in its most positive sense. The language I try to teach is clear, simple, direct, and exact. In lit, the biggest problem now is an absence of any deep literacy. I teach close reading in lit more than anything else. In all my classes, I try to communicate the ways the culture lies to us and our often willing complicity in those lies.
Have you ever taught fiction writing? What do you think is missing from the curriculum? Or maybe I should be asking instead about what might be missing from your own curriculum?
I’ve taught fiction writing, but I quit doing it some years ago. If I were to teach it again, I’d like to do it at the graduate or professional level, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. What’s lacking in curriculum is what’s lacking in the culture—a large, sophisticated, well-read audience.
Who or what is responsible for this absence of deep literacy, and how, as a teacher, do you fill this absence?
I think the overwhelming presence of screens—TV, computer, cell phone—has a lot to do with it. And the crazy quilt patterns of American education which is so unsystematic you get creationism in some states, and the general anti-intellectualism in the country, and profound indifference are all contributors. I teach close reading by essentially walking students through texts they have already read. Modern work is particularly good for this, but then close reading was codified as response to Modernism.
Some pieces of yours I’ve read in print or online are fragmentary pieces, little narrative slices. “West,” from the 2013 edition of NOON, is one of my favorites:
Now he had to do something. She wrote that. It was not true. She knew that. She did not want him to do anything. Not really. With the desert and the hills, stone and brush, the sun, the dust, the dry everything.
She wrote that letter. Imagine, a letter. Writing in faded graphite on filler paper—smeared pencil—that—enough for her or all she could do or what she could say and what was the difference.
Was Diane’s editing a result of the brevity of this piece? Are fragments like this part of larger works that you’re writing? Or are these fragments composed as stand-alone pieces?
Diane is a brilliant editor and cuts to the heart of a piece. But they begin quite short, and they stand alone. I’m working on something complicated now, and some of these shorter things might form something longer, but I won’t know until I’ve got a big enough manuscript to start to arrange it. I’m envisioning a number of pieces of radically different duration.
When attempting a new form, do you look for hints of what you’re trying to achieve in other writers? Or does your reading in general influence you to try new things?
Both, I think. Reading makes me want to try more things and shows me possibilities, and I don’t think there could be a book in isolation. It’s like you wouldn’t have a language that consisted of only one word. At the same time, I feel like every time I or anybody writes a book, the writer is reinventing the book, and for me, there’s no avoiding that feeling.
Do you mean reinventing in the sense of how you put a book together against past efforts, but also against the books of other writers you have in mind at the time?
Both those and more. Every book comes with the same problems of language and narrative, and these are multiple problems, but they need to be uniquely resolved each time. So, at least for me, every book is like writing a book for the first time. You get better technically, but the problems are always there demanding solutions, or, at least, amplification.
You are a master of omission. As you developed this technique, whom did you study?
Beckett, Handke, early Mary Robison, Diane Williams, Dawn Raffel, Leonard Michaels, and, now that I think of it, in a strange way Robbe-Grillet. Also Borges. Every serious writer my age read Borges.
Writers are sometimes hesitant to go back and analyze old work. But I wonder if you see the evolution of your short stories from Out of Work to Carbine, from scene-based narrative movement to a kind of momentum driven by interior reflection and pure intent?
I’m hesitant to analyze any of my work, but I would say that my stories are less concerned with conventional plot and more concerned with language than they used to be. I don’t know if this is evolution—I’m suspicious of any notion of progress in art—or simply moving more deeply into obsession. You know, you get older and become an ever-increasing crank.
Culture critiques are everywhere in your fiction. In “Aperture,” a man reflects on a memory of a photograph of he and his wife in Graceland, a photograph he felt guilted into buying but now sits in a box he cannot find, though he surmises it will turn up sometime in the future. Then, he considers his wife’s image of the future: a place where certain humans are picked to colonize another planet. He thinks:
It was all fantasy. Mythology. The mythology of insecurity, the mythology of science fiction, the mythology of redemption melded into a cheesy pop culture concept unworthy of itself.
A reflection of the general insecurity in the culture. That insecurity broadcast daily.
This is a culture influenced by the media and the cinema of the times:
He hated those movies yet once they entered the culture they kept coming back, eternally recycled to squeeze every bit of possible profit from them. If nothing else, images to carry advertising as a host culture carries bacteria in a lab.
Is popular culture a form of distraction? When you teach your students to see through the culture, what role does fiction play in the classroom?
I tell my students pop culture is a device to remove money from the idiots, and we, collectively, are the idiots. I also show them how serious fiction tells the truth and does not neatly resolve itself as pop culture does. But I point out that literature tends towards stasis and the best pop culture can be dynamic, so the two steal from each other and alter their relationship to each other. I realize some writers don’t see a distinction, and some writers like Charles Willeford or Donald Westlake, in the Parker novels, blur the two categories to the extent they’re both. I’m not trying to be some high priest of Culture like Adorno; I’m trying to give my students a method to evaluate the media they receive. Part of what destroyed English as a discipline is when elite universities decided post structural criticism was the truth, the dogma, when it was a method. It’s good not to confuse the two.
What kinds of discussions are going on in your classroom regarding the use of social media? You tweet, as do I. Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice? What is it about the tweet that you enjoy?
The only real classroom discussion is a ban on having devices on in class although yesterday, during a break, I noticed half the students were texting, and, since we had been reviewing semicolon usage, I told them to include a semicolon in their texts. I was on Facebook, but I got so disgusted with their confiscatory policies, I committed Facebook suicide. I like Twitter because it’s a ridiculous platform for inane observations. I make a lot of inane observations.
Isn’t there something to be said about working within a character limit? Online writing is efficient. There’s a limit to how many characters fit into the subject line of your email before the line cuts off on the viewing end—55 characters, typically—and online marketers, for example, write to make their message fit.
I think that’s right. And all the web journals have encouraged short pieces. If I have something longer than 1,000 words, I try to get it in print because I think anything longer is too long to read online. This leads me to write things in different lengths differently although my stuff has always been shorter than what would have been considered standard 30 years ago.
Do you feel, writing and publishing short short prose, and as the form continues to evolve, that your fiction is better suited for today’s readers than those of the past?
That’s a difficult question because I hate the implications of my answer. We are all prisoners of our time and experience, but I don’t want to be. Not wanting does nothing but make me unhappy. I have readers who value and understand my work, and I’m grateful for that, but I have deep concerns about literacy in this country. I do think readers now accept short work. I’m not sure that’s a great development. Style, it seems, emerges from some complicated, obscure history. Then again, I think of Sappho, and I like her work. I even like that it’s fragments.
Stanley Crawford once said in an interview, we live “within a society that is inclined to measure success in monetary terms,” and if his work were to “attain bestseller status,” he “might see that as another kind of failure.” Do you think this is true of your own writing? What do you use to measure your success?
I’d like to be a bestseller, and I’d like to have the money associated with it, but it’s impossible now. Literary writing has moved to the fringes; bestsellers are only commercial entertainment. The culture has fragmented, and the people who control culture have decided serious conversations are over. This, of course, relates to and interacts with the stupidity of our politics. It also serves that stupidity. I don’t know how I measure success. It seems by most definitions I’m a failure, but I’m okay with that.
Does your frustration over the lack of serious conversations cause you to have them through your fictions?
Some of that, and some what life is like now, and some can you believe how ridiculous things are, and some wonder at linguistic constructs.
Sheer force of language is what lures me to your stories. When I think about the source of your stories, what gets them started, I think of this recovered Jiddu Krishnamurti passage: “So there is the content of consciousness, dull, stupid, traditional thought, recognizing all its emotions—otherwise they are not emotions—always it is thought, which is the response of memory, knowledge, and experience, that is operating. Now can the mind look at this? Can you look at the operation of thought?”
Take, for example, this passage from O’Hearn:
Who do you think you are he had been asked.
He had said about his ambition but he had forgotten to say about his fire of ambition. It was fire, right? He said he would avoid the trap of failure though he thought everyone thought he was trapped in the trap of failure and although his ambitions, regardless of his statements, were not much. Not ambitious.
And one more, for good measure:
The past—couldn’t he stop thinking of it?
Couldn’t it be over?
He had the present. And future. Future always out there. He had no power over it.
Days without power. Years.
A man without power. He might make barely enough if he was extremely careful. That he had to be careful proved he had no power.
If he wanted proof.
These sentences convey the action of thought, all the internal pressures and stunted rhythms of the mind, yet these sentences move as if made with the mouth, by the ear. When did you start writing sentences this way?
I don’t know when I started writing that way. I think it evolved over time. The idea, of course, is to suggest the quality of thinking without having to build in the messiness of actual thought.
On literature in our “contemporary setting,” Lars Iyer says, “All efforts are belated now, all attempts are impostures.” Do you feel as though literature is not only on the fringe, but has reached its end, and if so, what should authors aspire to, if not take part in its revival?
Literature is always reaching its end because we are always reaching our ends. I don’t believe literature will go away. It constitutes and reconstitutes in different forms, but it’s as permanent as humans are. When we go, it goes. Until then, it goes on.
—Greg Mulcahy and Jason Lucarelli
Greg Mulcahy is the author of Out of Work, Constellation, Carbine, and O’Hearn. He has published over 100 stories in journals including NOON, The Quarterly, New Letters, Caliban, Gettysburg Review, Alice Blue, Spork, New York Tyrant, and Phantasmagoria. He teaches at Century College in Minnesota.
Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.