Against the Enlightenment-Car-Crash

Narrative Violence, Obsession, and Why the Tattoo Isn’t About You

Kris Bertin’s debut collection of short fiction, Bad Things Happen, has just been released by Biblioasis. Naben Ruthnum’s fiction and journalism have appeared in The Walrus, Hazlitt, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere; he was recently the Crimewave review columnist at The National Post. They met when they were both shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2012 Novella Prize (Ruthnum won, and was subsequently awarded the Journey Prize); you can read them giving one another a hard time on that magazine’s website here, and here.

Naben RuthnumNaben Ruthnum: In quite a bit of fiction that I would call Not Good, especially Not Good Short Stories, body-fragility in the form of disease and violence enter in the third act or on the last page as a sort of enlightenment-car-crash, giving the story some sort of hidden purpose when it seemed meandering. You find out that the lead character’s wife was dying of cancer the whole time, which supposedly makes his adultery poignant, that sort of thing. A banal plot with banal characters and interactions, supposedly made meaningful by disease or assault. Is this bad writing, or a fair reflection of the way these matters come up in life?

Kris Bertin: Writing a good story within those parameters is just a matter of offering more to your readers—through strong writing, creativity, character—than a stupid twist. A twist is cheap. Once you’ve sprung it, what else do you have to offer? It’s like first-year art students making ceramic cocks and twats. Maybe it’s shocking to your Nan, but for those of us who don’t care, does your piece offer us anything other than this one “daring” element? Probably not. I also feel that violence in and of itself is meaningless without narrative investment in the characters. I have stories where great physical harm comes to a character at the end of the story, but it’s always something that’s been coming for them—that you’ve been worrying about—from page one. Conversely, I have a story in my collection (“Is Alive and Can Move”) where we sidestep an act of violence because it’s not that interesting, and flash-forward to four years later—when our character has served time in prison, gotten clean and tried to come to terms with everything that led him to that moment—where the more interesting path lies.

Both of us write love to write about crime. One of my favourite stories that you’ve written (“Kirsty, 22”) is about a pair of creeps scamming and blackmailing lonely men using Tinder. I remember being dissatisfied with the story’s outcome and demanding an explanation from you about why a character who was betrayed never turned to violence to exact revenge. You told me this was an impossibility for him, because he was—in your words—a wimp. Likewise, in your story “Holdout Man,” your protagonist is caught cheating at a card table and spends the rest of the story with crushed thumbs. Do you find physical impotence to be a useful way to raise the stakes and avoid using violence in a story as a cure-all, or are you just more interested in weakness as a concept (and lifestyle)?

NR: Yeah, in that “Kirsty, 22” story, the character is a natural patsy—a passive person who could only break under pressure, not come back violently. That’s why the hidden protagonist, the real con man in the tale, chose him. The best part of the con is that the guy thinks he’s been chosen as a partner because he’s large and physically imposing, but really he’s been selected because he’s weak in the way that counts in the story’s game: he’s stupid and suggestible.

Don’t think that I haven’t noticed that you’re using this question as a way to passively call me weak, you Muscle Milk addicted display-bicep nothing. But yeah, “Holdout Man” is another story where we’re taking a framework that’s usually used in the tough guy regeneration-through-violence narrative, and we’re seeing that weakness begets more weakness, and that violence is often just a random occasion in someone’s life, not a character-defining moment. The people in that story who perform good acts are also perpetrators of unjustifiable, stupid violence, but there’s no clear morality or reasoning behind either their good or their bad actions. Decency can be as chaotically unmotivated as violence.

There’s a thing in “Holdout Man” about life taking bites out of people, of aging as an act of physical devouring by time. Do you think much about aging and decrepitude in your stories?

KB: It’s always surprising when a seemingly confident person has these kinds of weird hang-ups. I wasn’t calling you weak, but if I hurt your feelings or made you feel emotional I really am sorry.

I always thought of time’s effect on us as a kind of erosion, like water on rock, but I guess your more personal metaphor—about eating—works too. It’s definitely something I’m interested in and I’m actually working on a story right now about it. A real “man’s man” who has been lessened by time, little by little, until he has all these leftover tics and triggers that do anything or make sense without the necessary testosterone to power them. I see older men sometimes and I wonder: where does all that toughness go? And what does it become?

What’s interesting about strength, too, is that it’s all about perception. I have a few stories where the main characters are weak in the same way as your guy from “Kirsty” and thus believe the other men around them are a major physical threat, even when they turn out not to be. I think that if you’re not “in the game” so to speak, you can’t accurately gauge who’s actually dangerous and who isn’t. I wrote about this in “A Man Might Work,” where a little kid sees a horrible fight between two grown men he ends up deifying and only later understands what losers they were, and what danger he was in. If you’re a child and haven’t been harmed, maybe you think no one is menacing, and conversely, if you have been hurt, everyone might be frightening to you.

I wanted to ask you about another kind of weakness—the kind you and your characters are often (inescapably) drawn to: sexual perversion. Knowing you personally and having read almost all of your work, I feel confident in saying you’re obsessed with sexual deviance. You’ve seen every episode of To Catch A Predator, are an avid watcher of Dr. Phil, and have been building a “pain catalogue” or human sorrow for most of your life. You’ve written at least two stories (including an entire novel) about men obsessed with human hair, and you and your close friend Sully (Andrew Sullivan) co-wrote a story about rabid fans of celebrities warring with the paparazzi. What is it about obsessive behaviour that makes a good story? Do you see any of yourself in these characters, or is it difficult to connect with them?

NR: “Avid watcher” is overstating it. I do enjoy the Nigerian love-scam episodes of Dr Phil, but I think I’ve exhausted the supply. This year I’ve been trying to get out of the habit of watching that stuff—“pain catalogue” material—when I don’t really want to watch it. I can tell you that it doesn’t make me feel bad, or sad, but I do feel that I’m re-treading territory that I won’t be able to get much out of again, and it does pain me to click through a bunch of garbage when I could be reading or writing. Still, I did get stories out of that stuff. “Brushing” came, as you say, directly from TCAP, and your joke about my pseudonymous novel is actually not far off. While it’s not about hair-obsession, part of what it’s about is that the impulse to seek out pain, even if it’s depicted in banal reality TV, or in certain true-crime books, is not an immense distance aware from the sadistic impulses of actually bad people. If I’m a sadist, I’m an inert one, but my characters often aren’t. The obsession I wrote about are often body-focused, like Wallace’s hair fixation in “Brushing,” but I think that the way my characters act out those deviances are more about depersonalizing another person’s body entirely: the impulse to possess or damage becomes the entire, degraded project these characters have, an entirely self-focused real-life manifestation of a desire that actually has nothing to do with another person’s body, wishes, or personhood: that lack of empathy, that basic lack of acknowledgment of the humanity of the people these men are coveting, is where most of the worst evil in my stories comes from. The fundamental evil in “Brushing,” though, comes from frustrated love that has flattened out and turned into a wish to passively or actively damage every single person in the world.

As for what it is about obsessive behaviour that makes for a good story, I think it’s both that we either have all experienced obsession and we fear it, and that crafting a story, or any sort of long narrative, is itself an act that requires bursts of obsessive attention and an overarching commitment to creation that only benefits from obsessiveness. You can really see what I’m talking about in the work of filmmakers like Hitchcock and De Palma, and in both cases, the connection to sexual deviance (not necessarily in the creators, but certainly in the characters they choose), is evident. On the page, Thomas Bernhard has more than a little of this overlap between obsessive craft and works about obsessive people. Certainly Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Penelope Fitzgerald, Coetzee as well. The literary novel I’m writing just now is largely about a person’s obsession with a writer. The obsessed person moves from worship of the writer’s work to a desire to become that writer, and from that desire to a hatred and scorn for the writer, and a new desire to create a “real” narrative that will trap and expose the writer for the supposed fake that she is.

I guess I do think and write about this a lot, but if that answer I gave seems calculated, it’s not. I never get an idea or approach its execution with any sort of thought that it has something to do with any of my overarching philosophies or thoughts.

A couple of specific questions about your stories. First, the way you describe the protagonist’s physical development over a year of working as a garbageman in “The Narrow Passage” almost reads like a werewolf transformation, if you put the passages together. Especially that one about his face. I had this thought before I even hit the part at the end with the dog.

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kris bertinKB: When I set out to write “The Narrow Passage,” which is a story about manual labour, I wanted to talk about all of it. I wanted to talk about the very obvious bad parts of it, like the smell and mess of garbage or the endless toil, but also the unexpected bad parts, like dealing with troubled households or a lack of structure on the job. And though I talked about some of the nicer parts of this kind of hard work—the camaraderie, the experience of mastery over something, the moments of levity—pain and physical decline was also something I couldn’t ignore. Just about every poor, blue collar or working man I know has some kind of back/hip/leg injury and it’s from working a job like this, where you’re expected to work as hard as you possibly can and where complaining is impossible. I thought it was important to look at the way a job not only changes your life socially or economically, but physically. You grow and shrink, become quick at some things, or else wear yourself down from repeated movements. We as writers tend to focus on abstractions when it comes to work, but some jobs—like being a garbageman—don’t just define you, they change the shape of your skeleton.

NR: How about tattoos? Answer anything you want here, but I wanted to talk about how you don’t use them in a passing way to denote toughness or jailhouse experience. I’m thinking, first, of that deceptive memento mori in “Girl on Fire Escape.”

KB: I do have some of that jail-tough stuff, I guess. But in “Girl on Fire Escape,” the character Tan, who is some kind of erratic, strange-acting pseudo-criminal, has a huge tattoo on her chest that I watched grow and grow in each draft until it was quite enormous. What, to me, started as a symbol of autonomy and maybe self-importance—the stuff the story is about—eventually took on different meaning. It occurred to me, years after first writing the story, that what it means to me or the story is irrelevant. In fact I had fucked up by focusing on it. My editor, Alexander MacLeod, helped me get to this realization and it made a huge difference in the story.

What’s more important is what it means to the character, and what it says about her experience, self-identity and psychology. What she went through to get it. That ended up being something I focused on for the story’s new conclusion—the actual process of actually having your skin pierced with a needle, for hours and hours—an act which, however vain or stupid, is a kind of self-transformation. People get tattoos to fill themselves up with meaning, something we’re all in a hurry to find.

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