An interview with Thomas Phillips
In April of 2009, just prior to the publication of Long Slow Distance, Richard di Santo of Object Press sat down with Thomas Phillips to talk about his novel and literary interests.
Hello, Thomas. Let’s talk about your novel, Long Slow Distance. Tell me a little of your inspiration in writing. What was the idea behind it, the one pushing you to write?
Central to this novel is the notion of becoming, an ongoing process to which we are all subject in different ways, I think. Certain events that feature in the novel are not unfamiliar to me, they more or less reflect aspects of my own becoming as a writer, a thinker, a runner.... There is, of course, something pleasurable about articulating such experience. For this book, I was interested in a kind of life force, for lack of a better term, that is at once obscure and integral to whatever one becomes in a given moment. Even when one is socially marginalized in that moment of becoming, as is the case with a few of the characters who appear here, there’s always a potentiality beyond the confines of conventional ways of being in the world, with people, with oneself in isolation. That potential is very compelling to me.
Style seems to be at the foreground here. Your writing—the narrative voice—is mannered, distant, one might even say cold. The style is sometimes fluid, lyrical, and at others, fragmented and formal, as if being filtered by a lens of propriety, a certain kind of formalism.
Hhm, propriety is an interesting word here. To some of my more adventurous writing students, I sometimes find myself repeating the cliché of learning the rules before you break them. I enjoy the rules, the literary codes, nearly as much as I take pleasure in dissolving them. It’s a matter of exploring a limit, utilizing what’s best about its particular space, its boundaries, and then rubbing that up against another form or sensibility, one that challenges any sort of codification. Hence the variation in style that, I hope, remains consistent in its diversity.
There seems to be a real critique of what might be called an American way of life, especially in the first section—in which the runner struggles with his tendency to judge those around him—but it also surfaces in later chapters as well. The entire novel, in fact, appears to be structured in way to imply a moving away from America. Can you elaborate on this?
I know I’m not alone in having an ambiguous relationship with my original home. But the case of America is unique in that it manifests such potential, so much youthful energy that is more often than not squandered on profoundly mediocre activities. Television. Thoughtless consumption. A ‘loafing’ mentality that is as far from Whitman’s observation of ‘a spear of summer grass’ as one can get. Having lived significant periods of my life outside America, in cultures that perhaps more generally value the intellect and operate with a kind of refinement that is very rare in America, I find it difficult to avoid being critical, wanting to leave when I’m in the midst of its infantilism. And yet, I recognize its value, its accomplishments, along with the undesirability of living out of that critical mind, which can become quite nasty. It’s also useful to remember that this book was written in the Bush era, perhaps the height of America’s delusion. As a collective body, the country stared into Lacan’s mirror and misrecognized everything, an infant perceiving itself as perfectly and jubilantly integrated, when the reality is in fact flailing limbs, unrefined thought processes, primitivism. And of course, many, many people continue to attach themselves to an ideology of self-aggrandizement that absolutely collapses any possibility of genuinely critical, intellectual reflection. I adore particular facets of life here, but remain dubious.
There are a few funny bits throughout the book, but usually they’re no more than a wink, a passing comment. How does humor fit into your ideas on narrative and style?
I think that some degree of humor is essential given that the alternative is a literary undertaking that can easily slip into self-importance. But I want to be careful about this degree, because I’m not particularly interested in superficial comedy, easy jokes, silly references. Too much of it becomes frilly. I suppose that the humor here tends to be a consequence of the distance of which you spoke earlier. There’s something quite funny about staring into a situation, particularly one that evokes discomfort, without the tyranny of personal investment, one’s reactionary attachments. Literature can provide this vision with both insight and amusement.
Let’s talk a little of the first section, which is the longest chapter of the novel (roughly the first half), with its focus on the runner. The character remains fairly ambiguous—we understand what he does, and something of how he thinks—yet he is distant from us. We don’t know what he’s feeling, beyond a certain reserve and calm exterior, his occasional anxieties.
His predominant mode of becoming is that of disappearance. I won’t say too much more about this beyond the idea that his lack of an impression upon others has as much to do with his relatively specialized interests as it does with running. He utilizes this force of which I spoke earlier, and in so doing positions himself in a place of obscurity. There’s a process of depersonalization here that can ultimately be read in a number of ways. Though I certainly have my own reading, I like the ambiguity.
I’m a runner. I love running. I appreciate the rich psychology of running. It seems a perfect activity through which to explore the conjunction of solitude, immanence, and the vast arena of interrelationality.
The title of this first section—‘Palais de Mari’—is a reference to a composition by Morton Feldman. Why this piece, why this composer?
Feldman is exceptional in his foregrounding of relative stillness and silence amidst incredibly precise, tonal gestures. In this juxtaposition, there’s a great deal of tension that’s tempered by his penchant for elegance, splashes of color that lift the music into something more than a minimalist pose. I could go on. But Palais de Mari really captures this balance for me, and stands as a musical expression to which I aspire in literary discourse.
In addition to writing fiction, you compose music. Are there any correlations between the acts of composing and writing, or between music and literature, for you?
Absolutely. For me they are both, at best, generated out of this distance that we’ve been discussing here. I used the word ‘expression’ to describe the Feldman piece, but I should qualify this by suggesting that what is expressed, for me at least, is less a musical or literary message and more an experience of musical or literary time, which can be so very different from what most of us normally perceive as time passing. Music or literature that functions according to a decisive, minimalist form plays with one’s attention. It invites the listener or reader to sit with what’s available in the immediacy of its aesthetic by opening rather than closing the field of experience. Another way to say this is that such art challenges the conventional strictures of consciousness.
The final chapter takes place at a strange type of music festival, where the listeners all plug in to headphones, rather than experiencing the concerts in a more conventional, public way. What do you make of this kind of event, from the perspective of a performer (reaching the audience as if they were a collection of discrete satellites), and as an audience member (where there is essentially no interaction with other people, other bodies, no dancing, no negotiating for space, no catharsis)?
Such an arrangement certainly has its limitations, not all of which are particularly productive. But I wouldn’t agree that it’s bereft of catharsis. I’ve had some extraordinary experiences in this kind of environment, very focused, music sets that really took me somewhere when I engaged with them. And between headphones, with little in the way of spectacle, one must choose between being engaged or drifting off into thought, which I think is generally overrated. And besides, unless the audience is there to dance or socialize, it essentially consists of isolated subjectivities, though one could also argue that in such isolationism is the potential for profound communion.
We've talked about ‘distance’ a few times here, and we've been using words like ‘discrete’, ‘solitude’, ‘isolation’... there is a kind of loneliness in all of this. The characters of your novel are mostly alone, even when they’re with others. Experiences are often mediated, and interactions with others kept to a minimum. The runner’s relationship with the woman, for example, seems to be defined by a failure to come together, they don’t seem to be very close at all. What do you make of this?
Well, on one hand, there is certainly a degree of existential isolation at work here. There are also moments of tenderness, closeness between the runner and his partner, though as you suggest, the writing style filters these experiences in such a way as to keep them at a certain distance. I would argue, however, that most every experience or event in the book is viewed through this window of distant mediation, not just those that might otherwise be deemed romantic or affirmative. There’s a kind of middle way approach that’s at work here, I think, as much as I would want to avoid any sort of trite, literary Buddhism. The irony, of course, is that in locating that distance, as a character, or a living being, experience becomes heightened—one actually feels, senses, and thinks more acutely, profoundly. It’s quite a radical alternative to a mode of experience that relies on sentimentality and identification, a mode, incidentally, that governs a great deal of fiction writing in my opinion.
How does theory—literary or otherwise—influence your writing?
It accounts, to some degree, for this distance we’ve been discussing. Despite the many ways it’s been used and abused, postmodernist theory has contributed to both the advent of ‘new’ literature and a ‘new’ person—a writer, a reader—one for whom Humanist models no longer suffice. And yet, the cyber-human, or the fragmented subject, these are just as problematic or socially-constructed as the Cartesian self who thinks and therefore is. The notion of becoming to which I alluded in response to your first question, however, allows for both multiplicity and the material, embodied reality of life. As an extension of life, literature offers fertile ground for an exploration of this subtle and sometimes not so subtle movement between the banality and the dynamism of a person engaging with other persons, other phenomena. While Long Slow Distance can certainly be appreciated apart from its theoretical underpinnings, the latter give the novel a certain weight, a challenge that I find quite important to its general project.
Is there a particular literary category or tradition into which you see Long Slow Distance fitting?
I’ll begin by telling you where it doesn’t fit, and that’s in a tradition of conventional storytelling. Many writers, I find, begin the writing process by answering the generic question—What’s it about?—and proceed to outline a story involving all kinds of ups and downs, detours, a circus of fascinating characters. Though there are plenty of great stories out there, some of which have become great books, I’m far more interested in style and, specifically, the immediacy of events that is best depicted by a style the guiding principle of which is reduction.
Perhaps more than any other, the first section of the novel clearly unpacks a narrative that can be followed more or less linearly. And yet, even here, the protagonist’s trajectory is ultimately towards his own effacement. From this point on, the book is about dispersal—of character, plot, geography, subjectivity—though it’s a diffusion not unlike a musical event in which performances are curated with particular aims in mind. There’s symmetry and order amidst improvisation and the inevitability of chance intervening.
As for traditions to which I do adhere on some level, certainly the nouveau roman is relevant to my work, and particularly those writers of contemporary French fiction who have followed the lead of Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Beckett, etc. Though I don’t see the current writers (Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Christian Oster, Marie Redonnet, or Christian Gailly, for example) constituting a school as such, certain common traits do relate to the project of Long Slow Distance—depersonalization, dry humor, fragmented narrative structure, brevity. Concerning this last point, the fact that these writers are given license by French publishers (and readers) to stop a novel at just over 100 pages really speaks to a unique sensibility, one that values an economy, and paradoxically, a depth of language. I find this immensely attractive. As does, I believe, Object Press, an anomaly in North America, it would seem.
Maybe, but I’m sure we’re not alone in this. I’m convinced that there’s immense potential—in terms of pushing the novel, for example, in new directions—in what is brief, precise. And the contemporary French writers you’ve mentioned here are among those who explore this potential with very inspiring results. This brings us to the question of what’s on your own bookshelf. What have you been reading lately?
I believe the last novel I read was Jean Echenoz’s Ravel, which is fantastic. Otherwise, I’m often engaged with books for the classes I teach: Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist, John Hawkes’s Travesty, and Milan Kundera’s Slowness, for example, all wonderful books. Oh, and Beckett’s Molloy, I read this for the first time recently. A masterpiece.
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