Alexander Maksik on Writing About Post-Recession New York
Dwyer Murphy Talks to the Author of The Long Corner
Alexander Maksik, an inveterate stylist of the first order, is forever walking a line between cynicism and hope, all it playing out at the level of language, his consistent preoccupation. In his latest novel, The Long Corner, it’s the language of art that has Maksik’s attention: its deterioration under the pressures of commercialism, survival, escapism, so-called wellness, and the strains between generations and their expectations for what the things they created in their youth might and should achieve.
That’s where Sol Fields comes in. He’s Maksik’s protagonist: a cultural journalist who, in a recession-hit New York, succumbs to economic temptations and takes a job in advertising. The job wears on him, and more importantly wears away at the most important relationship in his life, the one he has with his bohemian grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who has tried to pass down her love of art and pleasure.
The setup, fascinating in its own right, and soon moving to a mysterious tropical island run by an charismatic leader, is what will drive readers forward through Maksik’s work, but it’s the pitch perfect movement of his sentences that distinguishes The Long Corner, just as they did in earlier novels, especially his dogged exploration of mental health and inheritance, Shelter in Place. Maksik does the slow, difficult work of creating atmosphere with a style all his own, conjuring up a world that’s simultaneously obsessed with beauty and unerringly suspicious of all things beautiful. It’s that balance between the cynical and the hopeful. The stylist and the true believer.
I caught up with Maksik in the leadup to The Long Corner’s release. We discussed New York City in 2008, the wellness industry today, the space where advertising and commerce bleed into art, and the unavoidable political implications of his latest story.
Dwyer Murphy: The 2008 recession as it unfolded in New York looms large in the story. It imposes a psychic weight on the characters. That timeline felt like a very deliberate choice. Why start during that period, and in that place?
Alexander Maksik: An economic crisis always forces the romantics among us to put their money where their mouths are. It is one thing to commit to a life of art when the safety nets are secure and opportunities for making money are abundant. But while I have tremendous respect for anyone who chooses some purpose of passion above what we might call conventional life, those who do so with no family to return to, no one to call from prison or the hospital, who risk everything for art (I think of someone like Basquiat) are courageous and devoted on a different scale entirely.
In Sol’s case, in 2008, magazines are no longer as flush as they once were. There are indications that the old days are coming to an end, and the prospect of committing to even the work of writing about art and artists is too daunting, too frightening. He simply doesn’t have the courage to do what he loves. Instead, he makes the choice most of us would: he takes the money. And in so doing, he comes to admire, even more, those who have the courage to stay the course.“It’s a novel about language, about the deadening effect of empty talk, the mindless chatter of our daily lives, but also the allure of the aphorism and cults of personality.”
DM: There’s a lot of concern here for, broadly speaking, the wellness industry: its traps, cliches, promises. A phenomenon that’s been with us forever but has maybe taken on more prominence or ubiquity with new technology. How did that find its way into The Long Corner?
AM: The wellness industry is perfectly designed to empower just the kinds of frauds I was interested in writing about. You’re right, snake oil has been profitable forever, but what strikes me as interesting and dangerous—and perhaps new—is how the language, values and philosophies of that industry have wormed so deeply into the culture at large, and particularly into the culture of art.
The pressure to be pure—in body, in spirit, in our allegiances to various politics—is immense. And from there it is just one step further to eliminating the unclean, the immoral, the damned. In fact, for many I think the pursuit of purity (bodily, societal) has replaced the pursuit of a traditionally religious, which is to say moral, perfection. And because we’re all clinically addicted to our phones, it is nearly impossible to avoid the new carpetbaggers. They are everywhere selling their bullshit, and, because that bullshit is both seductive and outrageously profitable to everyone involved, they are granted the enthusiastic support of once-serious newspapers and magazines.
Unfortunately, an instinct to purity is an instinct to simplicity, and both are antithetical to good art. I’m no sociologist, but from my armchair I see a direct correlation between the mounting pressure to cleanse, detoxify, shred and sculpt the body and the pressure to, say, be “a good literary citizen,” to support the right causes and condemn the wrong.
DM: In contrast to New York, there’s this island. A mysterious place, unnamed, unlocated. Presumably in the Pacific, lush, tropical, a draw for searchers and artists. The atmosphere and the location detail is very specific, and I’m wondering how you balance that kind of thick atmosphere with keeping up the mystery, the vagueness, so that this place can also operate as a metaphor?
AM: I had several places in mind as I wrote, places I know well, but because I wasn’t trying to be true to a single location, I had the freedom to invent as I liked. It’s remarkable how easy it is to imbue a place with mystery by simply refusing to name it. That’s something I discovered to be quite potent (and liberating).
DM: The corruption of language factors into the story quite dramatically. Sol allows himself to be seduced by the advertising world and soon the language of modern commercialism has rewired his brain, his expectations, his experiences. How do you go about depicting something like that on the page? Are you drawing on experiences of your own, your own experiences with language?
AM: Part of the reason that I chose to write from Sol’s point of view is so that I could explore the way his life in New York, the people he knows, and his work in advertising has reformed and corrupted his relationship to language. Despite his best efforts and even when he’s critical (and frequently while he’s critical) of the jargon and styles he so despises, he falls into their traps—cheap aphorisms, easy alliterative phrases, meaningless word slurries. I liked him wrestling with a desire to be original, to write and think and act and see in fresh, compelling ways while constantly failing. It is a deeply difficult battle to win, particularly for writers, especially since so many of us are inundated with the relentless conformity of Twitter-speak. But it’s what we are trying to do, isn’t it? Aren’t we constantly waging war with our lazy instincts to cliché—of phrase, of character, of plot, of idea?
I feel intense pressure, more now than ever in my career, to conform, to repeat received ideas, to cultivate fashionable politics and inject them into my work, to essentially replace art with editorial. However, I believe passionately that novelists, artists of any kind, have no more important responsibility than to reject these conventions. But perhaps that kind of certainty makes me guilty of just the kind of thing I claim to be so appalled by. I suppose at the heart of it, it is this very tension that drives the novel.
DM: While we’re on a technical level, I found the dialogue to be pulling more weight in this novel than in your past fiction. Could be that’s a misimpression but it seemed to me you were giving the characters a bit more space to speak. Does that sound right? Was there a deliberate decision? You’re dealing with some very large, expressive figures here.
AM: Because the book is so much about the ways in which a certain kind of person uses jargon and cant to derive and maintain power, I needed to show how that works. I also hoped that some of the large, expressive figures you refer to might seduce the reader just as they do their acolytes. So, yes, because it’s a novel about language, about the deadening effect of empty talk, the mindless chatter of our daily lives, but also the allure of the aphorism and cults of personality, all of that needed to appear on the page.
DM: There’s no getting around the political implications in the story. What drew you down that path? Was that the project at the outset?
AM: I began writing the novel in 2016 while I was still living in New York. I vividly remember Election Day. I went out to vote on one of those spectacular blue November mornings. The line stretched up 9th Avenue, turned west at 25th Street and continued almost all the way to 10th Avenue. It was a festival atmosphere, and I remember having the joyous feeling that we were all unified against a single villain. I’d never had so many conversations with strangers. We were all so smug, so sure of ourselves, so certain we’d send that fool back to his nasty little hole. Of course, then came the night, then came the funereal morning. It was so grim.
But as disturbed as I was by the results, I found myself increasingly disturbed by all the simplistic analyses, the performative weeping, the facile explanations, the convulsive self-righteousness. I began to see something ugly in a certain faction of what I would have then described as “our side.” While I found the man himself terribly dangerous and utterly despicable, I was not willing to write off more than half the voting public as racists and morons and pretend it was all so simple. Over the course of the following months and years, I began to think more and more about what joins absolutists of all stripes, how similar they all are, and the ways in which power is easily accumulated by pretending the world is as neatly arranged as one wishes it to be.
DM: Lina Klein, Sol’s grandmother, is a Holocaust survivor dedicated to art and beauty and pleasure. She feels like such an important connective tissue for the bigger cultural ideas at play here. How did she come to life for you?
AM: She is inspired by my own grandmother, but mostly in spirit. In biographical detail they have very little in common. As for how she came to me, she’s a bit like the protagonist of my second novel. One day she arrived, and I loved her. In fact, in early drafts I think I loved her too much. Later I realized that she was a bit too faultless, and I had to consider the ways in which she, too, was both weakened and humanized by her own certainties, her own tendencies to divide the world between good and evil, honor and dishonor.
DM: Do you think of yourself as a religious writer, or a writer preoccupied with spirituality, let’s say? Art and religion seem inextricable in so many of your books.
AM: In many ways, this novel is really a kind of love letter to the experience of wonder that comes from both the exposure to and creation of art. Aside from the birth of my daughter, nothing has brought me closer to the religious than writing. To be very clear: I do not mean that I feel somehow connected to God when I write. But when my work is going well, I do feel entirely disconnected from myself, or from my ordinary self. I feel smarter, my mind more agile, looser, less prone to control. In fact, when I’m working well, I often feel entirely out of control.
Occasionally I will read over pages and have no memory of having written them. Again, I want to be very clear: I’m not delusional. I do not believe that God is working through my fingers. I only mean that the experience is occasionally one of true astonishment. I’m so grateful to have spent all these years writing and publishing. Doing so has made my life better, more meaningful, more profound. And because of all that, I am devoted to art. I have faith in it, I believe wholeheartedly in its intrinsic value and force. I suppose in these ways, I am a religious writer in so far as my devotion to, and faith in, art and true artists borders on the naïve.