Interview with Ronald Sukenick
by Alexander Laurence
Ronald Sukenick is the author of numerous works of innovative fiction including Up, Out, 98.6, The Endless Short Story, Blown Away, and Long Talking Bad Condition Blues. His book of non-fiction, Down and In, recreated the New York underground scene from the fifties to the present. His most recent book of fiction, Doggy Bag (Black Ice Books), has been given an enormous welcome through many reviews in newspapers and large audiences on two recent reading tours of the United States. In a recent panel discussion in San Francisco at The Press Club on “Fiction into the 21st Century” Marjorie Perloff mentioned Sukenick as one of the most interesting writers now working.
Alexander Laurence: The last time we talked, you ended by saying how sexuality is an unstoppable force. Could you elaborate on this idea?
Ronald Sukenick: It’s such a basic appetite. It’s like hunger. Somehow or other, it’s going to manifest itself. If it’s not being manifest by its presence, it’s manifest by its absence. It’s like oxygen: you can’t do without it. You miss it if it’s not there. If you become numb to it, I guess you could do without it.
AL: You have written many novels that are both semi-autobiographical and which deal with sexuality. Are these just your fictional fantasies or are these experiencential?
RS: This could be an embarrassing and incriminating question. Let me just say that me writing is often a combination of experience and embroidery, but from the time I was working on Up, I decided that as far as writing goes, there was a continuum between what seems to be actual experience and what’s completely fantastic or fantasy-like. Because it’s writing, it doesn’t make any difference to the reader. That’s not the point, despite the eternal talk-show question of “Whether this really happened?” The reader doesn’t know and can’t know because it’s not actual lived experience, it’s writing experience. It’s a different kind of thing. So it makes it easy and even advisable to extend the possibilities of one’s actual autobiography into imagined autobiography. I think the tradition that you can trace this back to is Laurence Sterne, but certainly Henry Miller. I used to know Anaïs Nin, so I know that Miller’s autobiographical adventures are highly invented. It’s a form that I call “Pseudo-Autobiography” which is a form that I write in. The form is autobiography but it’s also fiction.
AL: Why is Henry Miller such an important writer?
RS: I think that Henry Miller is misunderstood, because I don’t think that the sexual content is the real core or the most important thing. It’s the most obvious thing, and at the time of his writing it, the most spectacular. That side is now out of favor because of the feminist movement. It’s true that looked at from today’s perspective, Miller is a sexist pig, but from the framework of the 1930s, he was simply a man of his time with the masculine ideals of that era, and willing to be frank about it. When it came to be the 1960s, when one read Miller, there was the recognition that he was crude about sex, but at least he wrote about it. It was a big revelation for us because that sort of activity seemed impossible because of censorship.
The most important thing about Miller is his sense of what America is like, what an American is. He gets the sense of how Americans always feel that they can change their lives. They can always go through some kind of process of salvation which is secular but quasi-religious. That you can drop out of your job and go to Europe and find yourself, or find culture, or find enlightenment. You can completely revolutionized yourself and expand yourself, and rise to new levels of consciousness and a better kind of life. I think this is something that is very American; and not too plausible from the European point-of-view. Celiné writes in vernacular like Miller about similar lower middle class life, but there is no sense of hope. For fiction writers, Miller is like Whitman is for American poets.
AL: How do you feel about the idea about your writing functioning as a personals ad or a love letter?
RS: Actually, if you want to know the truth, it apparently acts like a love letter. There have been many occasions where women have approached me: it happened not long ago where a woman came up to me and said “Someone who writes that kind of explosive, sexual scenes that you write must be blah blah....” I remember another woman seducing me during an interview while talking about this very same subject. So apparently it has a very eroticized effect on some women. No doubt it makes other women furious. It’s beyond my control, in the sense that if I try to start censoring myself, I’m finished. I consider the beginning of my writing career to be a certain moment when I was working on my first novel, Up. I was writing a sexual scene, and I was typing away, and suddenly I wrote something sexual in the extreme, and I said to myself: “You can’t write that.” Then I went back and changed it. A minute later, I caught it. I said “What do you mean you can’t write that ? Why can’t you write that?” I realized that there was a voice in my head that was really censoring the raw material of my basic feelings.
AL: Part of Doggy Bag is about your experiences living in Europe for so long, where you have been many times since 1958. It used to be that Americans would go there to have a cultural experience, now it’s mostly escapism.
RS: My wife and I bought an apartment in Paris ten years ago since we were there practically every summer. We had a chance to buy this place and to fix it up. It’s a nice neighborhood. Doggy Bag is like a reversal of the exile generation, Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, of the 1920s. It’s inside out because they were going to Europe to discover enlightenment. It was my attitude that Europe doesn’t have enlightenment to offer anymore, not since W.W.II. I live in Europe because life is pleasant there, more pleasant in terms of simply indulging the appetites, visual as well as sexual; and of course the gourmet and food. When I first went there, the greatest compliment by a French person was “You don’t seem American.” Now they love America much to the distress of the culture guardians. They admire the technology and American Pop Art and music. One of the things that is going on there is that the American multi-national conglomerates are taking over the European popular culture, especially the films. In Paris, it’s hard to see a French movie.
AL: As far as the novel goes, what do you think about new forms having an influence on consciousness? I’m mostly thinking about writing that is radical and new: works that have a difficult time being marketed?
RS: The thing about liberated form is that you can’t package it and sell it so easily. If you’re going to, it’s much more convenient if it’s standardized. If something comes along that looks too weird, there’s a problem. It can be done, as in the case of Mark Leyner, but it’s harder to package something that isn’t easily recognizable. Leyner got by because he has become sort of a comedian, so there’s a certain latitude there: everyone understands comedy and laughter. If it’s too weird, it will not sell. It interrupts the whole economic chain. That’s the other threat to the status quo, for innovative style or liberated form. My opinion is that the best kind of art or writing is innovative in some sense. The rest of writing is merely literature: that means it’s yesterday’s great work repeated today in formula.
AL: Your novel 98.6 has been reprinted after twenty years. I found that it was most of all about a theme concerning pangrams and simultaneously dealing with language being like a DNA code.
I was trying to figure out some key language which is not normal language, but a secret code which bridges the gap between mind and body, spirit and material. I finally concluded that the secret language I was after is the genetic code. There’s now an actual dictionary of the genetic code. There’s a matrix language which they are rediscovering with linguistics. They are trying to crack this genetic code through linguistics. This code is both symbolic and concrete. That’s what all my manipulation of language has to do with in 98.6. The language play is not gratuitous.
AL: I know a little about Esperanto and that scientists have been trying to get back to “the mother tongue” through language analysis.
RS: Esperanto is an interesting phenomena, and so is the legend of Babel. The place you go to for ideas about language being real and a bridge between the real and the concrete and the spiritual is the Cabalistic tradition. Esperanto, which was an attempt to universalize language, was invented by a Jew in the 19th century. He was acting out of a Cabalistic tradition. I traced this finally to myself and my own work, because my last book written, Mosaic man, is about being Jewish. It is very lengthy and unconventional. There, I go into the Jewish relationship to language in the most direct way I ever have before. It is an attempt to find the language of languages, the matrix.