By Dave Pezza
Eric Bennett's recent publication, A Big Enough Lie, is a novel about writing, the Iraq War, and fiction's role in American life. Entertainment Weekly called it "a paean to writing and reading...a depiction of literary fraud that's completely authentic and original."
I recently asked Bennett, a former professor of mine from Providence College, a few questions about his novel and American fiction.
Dave Pezza: A Big Enough Lie covers so much ground: the Iraqi war, self-deception, the state of contemporary literature, writing in academia, and more. How did this story begin before enveloping so much?
Eric Bennett: Why did James Frey get in so much trouble and George W. Bush so little? That was the originating question. But A Big Enough Lie wasn’t conceived, even at the start, as a diatribe against the Bush administration. At its core it’s more about American attitudes toward various kinds of truth and narrative than about that war or any given public figure—although plenty of the pages deal topically with events from 2003 to 2005. “TEX News” is not subtle satire. Maybe to some readers it will seem like a diatribe. But it was my priority to write something more than a protest novel. I also wanted to spend time thinking about how the early phase of the war must have felt for American soldiers and Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.
DP: Part of your novel takes place on the fictional “Winnie Wilson” television show, a clear parody of “The Oprah Show,” amongst A Million Little Pieces-esque scandal. Was this a critique on the American obsession of “true” stories and necessity for transparency?
EB: My least favorite dimension of 21st century literary culture is its oversubscription to memoir and that sensibility. There’s a collective valorization of unmediated common experience and also of a close association between author and hero or heroine. Agents and editors want you to resemble, more or less, the protagonist of your manuscript, even if it’s fiction. Oprah’s shaming of Frey reflected this sensibility. The simple fact of his lying doesn’t strike me as the true heart of everybody’s outrage.
The increasing taste for the “real” in literary writing deflates the morally interesting work that literature can do and narrows our sense of reality. It sidelines well-established and powerful modes of thinking. In my private thoughts as Eric Bennett, I can imagine a far better Eric Bennett than the real one (more patient, more lighthearted, better at small-engine repair, less haltingly awkward during his one chance to make small talk with Rashida Jones at a college party in 1996).
A Big Enough Lie was meant, among other things, to offer a challenge to the memoir paradigm. Ben Lerner’s novels are voraciously readable even as their protagonists stink. Lerner’s non-heroes seem to cleave closely to some version of the actual biographical Lerner, the guy who’s out there writing. He taunts the reader with the thinness of the fictional premise, and it’s an interesting game but a limited one and one that delivers very little by way of transcendence, which, even in 2017, I can’t give up wanting to believe in. I similarly enjoyed Tao Lin’s Taipei and similarly found the main character, who seems Tao Lin-like, to be abominable. The pleasure of reading Leaving the Atocha Station or Taipei is the pleasure of non-idealistic drug use (a big subject for both Lerner and Lin). As you turn the pages and attain that literary high, you tingle with intimations of profundity. But once the trip is over, you’re left with a remorseful memory of spiritual or ethical crappiness.
I agree with them—or with the implication of their novels—that life often seems meaninglessness and that the conditions for meaningfulness are foreclosed by the way we’ve structured our world. But writers of their caliber should resist rather than simply roll over for the status quo—not by writing politically in any narrow sense, but by dreaming of a fuller reality than the one we live in.
Vladimir Nabokov, in creating Humbert Humbert, wrote about somebody hideous, but he was clearly performing a feat of the intellect and getting at themes of selfishness and compassion in a way a memoirist never could. He was thinking in three dimensions. The moral triangulation of Lolita depends on Humbert’s vividness set over against the reader’s recurring but by no means constant awareness that that voice is only a fiction. The same goes for David Foster Wallace’s hideous men.
David Shields, in Reality Hunger, appointed himself the spokesperson for the “real” in fiction—at the increasing diminishment of the fictional as a category. But Reality Hunger, like the whole school of memoirist fiction, has no place for a theory of Lolita or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Shields’s imperatives strike me as the equivalent, for 21st century literature, of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise—not that white people writing fiction in 2017 have anything equivalent to what was at stake with black people fighting systemic racism in 1895.
DP: I’ve always had a soft spot for novels within novels. When done right, it adds so much to the reader’s understanding of the character who has written it. How hard was it to distinguish your writing from your main character’s?
EB: I aimed to make John Townley, the aspiring writer and the “real” protagonist of A Big Enough Lie, less likeable, less sympathetic, than Henry Fleming, the war hero and the “fake” protagonist and the ostensible author of the fake memoir, Petting the Burning Dog. Townley, the real guy, is insecure, shifty, arrogant, solitary, and self-conscious in a bad way—although he has some virtues too. Fleming, the imagined figment, is compassionate, ironic, well-intended, and self-conscious in a good way. So it was easy to keep them straight for that reason alone, but also because Fleming is in Iraq and Townley in the United States, and because Fleming presents himself in the first person, while Townley appears in the third. I’m assuming that the other protagonist, Heather Kloppenberg, didn’t figure into your question. She, I hope, stands out from the boys.
DP: Late in the novel your main character writes, “I contemplated in a possibly adolescent and facile way the violence and arbitrariness of borders, how, in the age of visas, passports, terrorism, capitalism, police states, and warfare, the social became the geographical.” In a decade that has been defined by overcoming geographical distance with social media and technology, do you think we, as a global community, are at risk of pushing the social into geographical to an irrevocable extreme?
EB: On the one hand, as you point out, human beings have never lived on a smaller globe, at least not as remote spectators for everything that can possibly blow up or burn down. During the first Gulf war Americans watched sites in Iraq get bombed in real time. Ever since then, the news, in a way, has given viewers a closer and closer vantage on cataclysm. Events in Egypt during the Arab Spring were a mouse click or finger tap away. These effects have been talked about in great depth by countless commentators and are nothing new to point out. On the other hand, especially since the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. in 2001 (not to mention in light of the American obsession with illegal immigration and more recently with the Ebola virus), the United States has locked down its borders with ever greater tightness and ever more refined technology. So depending on whom you are and where you want to go, movement is more difficult than ever.
In the scene you mention, Henry Fleming is marveling at the fact that one could actually drive a car from Baghdad to Istanbul and, with a little ferrying, from there to Western Europe. Of course it would be a hell of a road trip by any standards, merely for regions of topography and climate. But the real obstacles, the biggest ones, would all be man-made—bureaucratic and militaristic. This was untrue, in that region, within living memory but is even truer now, with ISIS in Syria, than it was when I wrote the book.
Often, during writing, I’d think to myself, “Baghdad is actually a place,” a stupid thought, but one of those stupid thoughts that’s powerful if you’re the one having it. The thought is both easier and harder to hold in mind than it would have been 50 years ago, and something about that combination of hard and easy inflects our experience of war. By “our” I mean those of us not serving overseas.
This week I’ve been reading David Mitchell’s novel about Dutch traders in Nagasaki at the end of the eighteenth century, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and it reminds me both that strict border control is nothing new (the Japanese at that time vigorously policed western influence, down to confiscating Christian paraphernalia from sailors) and that modern technology, as applied to controlling the movement of bodies, has made impossible a certain romantic kind of sneaking around. Henry Fleming’s trip overland from Iraq to Europe was written as a kind of fantasy, and one in this romantic spirit.
To answer your question directly, I’d say that yes, we have reached an extreme, one that is irrevocable, certainly as far as a cowardly English professor with a civilian passport is concerned. But if history teaches anything, it’s that today’s irrevocable extremes are tomorrow’s trivial curiosities. My parents, when they visited East Berlin early in their marriage, watched guards dig through the trunk and sweep mirrors on long handles under the body of the car. I’m visiting Berlin later this month and will be wearing a Ted Nugent t-shirt. And maybe early next year I’ll make it down to Cuba in my Marco Rubio sarong.
DP: As a professor of English at Providence College, has teaching literature and fiction affected your own writing?
EB: The nature of higher education makes reading, often, quite different for students and professors. For the professor, a great book is a thing to master and manipulate, publish articles about, and show the tricks and secrets of to his students. By the time he teaches it, it’s been 10 or 15, or 20 years since he first read it. For the undergraduate, the same book can be a fresh window on unprecedented sensations and experiences and points of view, a radical new thing. This difference between professors and students sucks.
It sucks less if professors put themselves in the point of view of their student and remember how trippy or moving or boring or weird or powerful everything was the first time around. My mind is too stingy for me to share the awe of my students if all I do is teach A Farewell to Arms or Beloved semester after semester. So my tendency is to load up the syllabus with new books—so I’m only a step or two ahead of my students. In this way, I’m reading on my employer’s dime while also (I hope? think?) fulfilling the terms of my employment. I’m avoiding becoming Zombie Prof. Or, if in fact I’ve already become Zombie Prof, it’s for reasons beyond my control.
A kind of deadened familiarity is not only bad for teaching, it’s bad for art. What an artist should want to create is what that undergraduate experiences: a radical breaking open of consciousness. The more I experience this freshness as a reader, the more I learn about how to create it myself. Or, if that’s too hopeful, I can say at least that the more I experience it, the more I feel spurred to try to rival the dazzle of the authors I love.
DP: Any other book recommendations? We’re always looking for new books and authors here at Writer’s Bone.
EB: James Wood turned me onto Henry Green’s Loving. That and Green’s other novels aren’t easy, but they reward the effort. I’m a big fan of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which has more Vonnegut-like sting and comedy than your average juggernaut novel of high European modernism. And Lydia Davis’s short stories are the best thing ever to keep on the nightstand. Two European authors writing memoir as fiction and getting buzz this year, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, are much harder for me to push back against than Lerner and Lin. I actually recommend reading all four together, which I’ve been doing this summer.
DP: How does it feel to have just published your first novel? Any tips for writers still trying to get their work out there?
EB: It feels astonishingly good. If I look back and count manuscripts and years, this was novel number four, published 15 years after I first took seriously the idea of getting my fiction in print. Even with this one, it wasn’t easy. An agent tried to sell it a few years ago, and I almost gave up when she failed. But then, after a few months of yoga, whiskey, kale, and staring out the window, I started looking for editors on my own. So my advice is the same as anybody’s: keep at it.
DP: Could you tell us something interesting or odd about yourself?
EB: Writer’s Bone has a blue and white aura, according to my synesthesia. Your name, Dave Pezza, is blue and red with a big green D.