Salvatore Scibona and Victor LaValle Talk War, Grad School, and the Inner Lives of Children
In Which Marilynne Robinson Asks, "Who lives in the present?"
Salvatore Scibona, whose new novel, The Volunteer, is available now from Penguin Press, had a proper writerly conversation with Victor LaValle in which, among other things, they discussed grad school, the infinite past vs. the skimpy present, war, and the inner lives of children.
Victor LaValle: Your first novel, The End, and now your second, The Volunteer, both take place in the past. The End in the 1950s and The Volunteer in the Vietnam era, what artistic and intellectual benefits do you enjoy from writing with this perspective?
Salvatore Scibona: Twenty years ago, I was at a book party in Iowa City for Marilynne Robinson. She was my teacher at the time. Some of us were standing around debating, with the vehemence that comes naturally to graduate students, why the past was the dominant tense in fiction. Marilynne seemed faintly to be listening while we all exhausted ourselves. Then she said, “Excuse me, who lives in the present?”
I think she meant that our inner life takes place only rarely in the present. Fear, anxiety, and hope all take place in an inner future. The rest is past.
For reasons I don’t fully understand, almost everything I’ve ever written has taken place before my lifetime. There are certain strategic advantages to this. I’m drawn to the firmness and particularity with which we can treat matters of knowable detail in the past. Also the backward and forward range it allows. Say you start with a man in Queens, in 1973. You can go back as far as you like in tracing the circumstances that landed him there, but you can also know what will happen to the neighborhood, history, music, youth culture, fashion, terrorism, technology in the years that follow. This can give you and the reader an extraordinary sense of observing from outside of time. And that vantage casts the lives of otherwise anonymous people in a context of deeper meaning than normal life allows.But the past tense is implicitly saying, “This was memorable. This turns out to have mattered.”
You may believe, morally and philosophically, in the infinite value of every human life: that everyone matters absolutely. And yet in day-to-day life, we usually see others and even ourselves as instrumental, worth only so much and only under certain circumstances. It’s difficult to see another life taking place in the center of a deep surround of meaning—unless you have a narrative. Narrative brings home to you what Don DeLillo calls in Underworld “the shock of other people’s lives. The truth of another life, the blow, the impact . . . The power of an ordinary life. It is a thing you could not invent with banks of computers in a dust-free room.”
The skimpy present I occupy nearly all the time has an infinitesimal duration that inhibits a vantage of this kind. But fiction set in the past lets me look at a person from this otherworldly vantage that lets me experience her significance rather than merely insisting on it as a principle.
VL: I do enjoy hearing stories about the experiences of others during graduate school. Or any school, for that matter. But in particular those times when it matters so much that we seem smart, even if we don’t always feel that way. Even funnier to imagine Robinson cutting through all the high talk with something so clear and direct. (I can’t say I entirely agree with her. I do believe some people live in the present more than others, but very few of those people turn out to be writers, so such people may seem more alien than . . . aliens.)
Anyway, I wonder if you hold with the idea that writing about the past is a way to write about the present. I’m thinking of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven. Both can be read as about their time and about the present in which each author wrote. But maybe that’s a narcissistic way of reading? Maybe the past doesn’t need to concern itself with the present at all.
SS: Some people do live more in the present. I study their witchy ways and envy them. I want badly to live in the present. Oddly, the use of the past tense in literature allows me to feel present to the thing described better than the present tense does.
I have a theory about this. When we write in the present tense, we ask the mind to take in the surroundings and relate whatever strikes it. We don’t ask it to be too selective because in the present we don’t know according to what we’d be exercising selectivity. But the past tense is implicitly saying, “This was memorable. This turns out to have mattered.”
By asking the imagination to speak in the past tense, we’re asking it to exercise selectivity. Like, “Don’t tell me anything and everything. Tell me the best things.” By “best” I mean what matters most, or most beautifully, to the larger story.
It’s probably inherent in any writing about the past that we are in some way writing about the present. But it better not seem so. You see this in bad historical movies all the time. The calculus seems to be, “Nobody will care about this event in the late 19th century, so let’s make it sound like the Mueller Investigation.” When I smell an anxiety like that to be current, I run away. Life is too short. As the famous opening line has it: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” To betray that difference, to make their time resemble our time is, well, phony. And what I always feel I’m after in a novel is realness. Invented realness, paradoxically, but still realness.
VL: I take your point about the present being welded to the past in ways that make you run away. That’s certainly the danger.
I’m quite interested in your last point as well, the bit you quoted, “. . . they do things differently there.”
I often find myself falling into the trap of assuming that human beings in the past were just earlier versions of ourselves. That ancient humans yearned to stop foraging and, instead, start a rock band, for instance.
While doing research for a previous book I remember reading about a woman who lived in Europe, had ten or so children and then left the family behind to become a pilgrim in the Middle East. (I’m sure I’m mucking up some details but you get the idea.) In her introduction to the book the author, a scholar of religious history I believe, mentioned that contemporary scholars knew little of this pilgrim’s childhood because, at that time, children were not considered interesting enough to document. People doubted that kids even had inner lives. What effect does this bedrock assumption have on the life of a child? Might it actually be liberating? Or did it leave children vulnerable to any number of fears and horrors?
SS: May I say, regarding your observation about the incuriosity with which writers used to treat the inner lives of children, it’s still going on. The old painters who depicted children as adult heads with miniature bodies made pictures that look a little grotesque to us today. But a contemporary novelist, in an effort to correct that mistake and be true to the way the child really is, risks becoming a slave to a very narrow idea of plausibility that goes like this: If the child has no word for the idea, the child has no experience of it.The words on the page are always an artifice meant to create a sense of a realness; that realness does not require sticking only to the vocabulary of the character.
This is untrue, and also results in an abdication of one of the great tools of the third-person narrator. That narrator is always, implicitly, a sophisticated user of language, usually more so than any one of the characters. We naturally accept the narrator’s use of, say, standard grammar, or vocabulary the character would never use in speech. The words on the page are always an artifice meant to create a sense of a realness; that realness does not require sticking only to the vocabulary of the character if the character has an experience about which she would not speak clearly in real life.
I have intense memories of wrestling with spiritual, intellectual, metaphysical questions at the age of five and younger. In many ways, I feel that boy knew things I have forgotten. I went on to learn a language for talking about such abstractions that seems to have narrowed the lane of possibilities.
I think what we sometimes take as amusing mistakes in the language of children really reflects their capacity to imagine stranger and perhaps truer realities than our conventional adult ones. Modern cosmology keeps coming up with weirder ways of accounting for the data, strategies that require wild flexibility in imagination that’s quite difficult for an adult. The child’s mind has a kind of intellectual stem cell in it, capable of a flexibility and seriousness that we lose as adults.
The novel is one of the few art forms (along with poetry) that can, with imagination, go right at the special illumination a child brings to a world we’ve gotten so inured to that we can hardly see it anymore as adults.
VL: Speaking of The Volunteer, what were the ways you had to adjust your thinking, your assumptions, in order to bring the Vietnam era into view? It’s not long ago but it’s such a different time.
SS: I can’t speak to the whole era or to everyone’s experience of it. I write about it mostly from the point of view of an American marine, the Volunteer of the title, and not, say, from a Viet Cong or NVA soldier, or any of the South Vietnamese civilians he encounters begging along the road to the Dong Ha. There are an infinity of stories about the war in Vietnam that bear telling.
I did my best to remember that the past is a different country.
Here’s a big difference between now and then. Many of us now think of the war in Vietnam as failure, a waste, a blunder, a venue of straight-up public lies and intentional mass murder, and we say, conventionally, that the US lost the war. But the U.S. serviceman in Vietnam at the beginning of the conflict represented a country that had never lost a war and had no clear prospect of losing this one. Whatever else such a soldier had going on in the small perimeter of his own efforts, the story of American invincibility was behind him. From the present, we can never know the events of the war with that kind of confidence, but as a novelist you can try to imagine them.But I felt that the mind at work in her books was transforming my own mind, and I wanted her to do it to me.
VL: I’m interested in that idea of a people, a nation, that had never lost a war and thus couldn’t imagine they ever would. I’m wondering, now, if the concept of winning a war would even seem plausible anymore. Maybe I’m only focused on our most recent ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where Bush and his hawks seemed stuck in that pre-Vietnam mindset, the inevitably of our success. This war has produced some excellent fiction as well. Matt Gallagher, David Abrams, Helen Benedict, to name a few. Did you find yourself reading a lot of war novels as you wrote The Volunteer, or did you steer clear entirely?
SS: The Volunteer does come around to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which one of the main characters is a long-serving soldier. One arc of the story has to do with the way one man, volunteering in the 1960s to fight in Vietnam, fathers another, who will volunteer in the still murkier wars of the 21st century. It is also about killing and the toll of killing on the killer as he himself goes on being alive. The majority of the book, in fact, takes place outside of wartime.
About war novels, or the particular subject of any novel. Certainly Tree of Smoke, Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, and for that matter The Iliad have been important books to me, but they were important as literature rather than as war stories. Somehow, I don’t seek out a novel for its subject but for the special pressure of a particular writer’s mind on my mind. The vehicle for this is language; its nature is the writer’s style. In my early twenties I read all of Toni Morrison’s novels in a state of—it was like irradiation; the feeling of being naked, outside, after a long winter, and the sun soaking me right through. That’s what that language did to me. I was not passive. I had sought it out. But I felt that the mind at work in her books was transforming my own mind, and I wanted her to do it to me. I had had no special interest in the Harlem of the 1920s that made me want to read Jazz. The novel created the interest. But the key thing was that I wanted to be close to her mind.
I had no special interest in the Trojan War either, but the Iliad, after I had made a few fitful attempts to read it in bad translations, got inside my skin. Then I studied it in Greek, just to get closer to the mind at work, you know? I really mean it about language and radiation. It’s as if the words shoot through your whole being and have the power to change your DNA. You can learn things (which of course bear fact-checking) from a novel’s treatment of its subject; but its deeper power is to change who you are.