I was at work when I first met Miranda Mellis. I looked up from the register one day and there she was, standing at the bookstore counter, backlit by a beam of sun. In nearly a decade of subsequent conversations, I came to know her work as a teaching artist and co-editor of The Encyclopedia Project. Then came her first novella in 2007, The Revisionist, a beautiful, shattered parable of a man who goes insane because of the nature of his job—writing falsified reports on climate change.
With tenderness and dark humor, Mellis explores similar terrain in None of This Is Real, her new collection of short fables just out on Sidebrow Books. Detailing the psychic wreckage that results from political problems, Mellis writes:
It had recently been made clear that even though everyone had to work, most jobs were a waste of time. This was making people feel crazy, almost every moment. While appearing normal, their hearts kicked and kicked, invisibly, like the legs of a duck, underwater. “Creating jobs” was the motto, production regardless of need.
We might be in a metaphysical fairy tale, or a world just around the bend from our own, and indeed, the precarious climates and barely livable economies in these stories induce both wonder and terror as barometers of our shared, precarious moment. What proffers hope or agency is Mellis’s capacity to imagine “the possibility of another kind of relationship with mortality, as yet undreamed of.”
During her East coast book tour this spring, Mellis visited my freshman writing class at Pratt to discuss fiction as an especially apt instrument for this sort of efficacious dreaming. We continued the conversation over email for several weeks, and the result is the following conversation about fiction as a way of divining. As for what the future holds, I can’t wait to read The Spokes, Mellis’s novella (set in the afterworld) forthcoming in June from Solid Objects Press.
AD: Under the spell of your stories and the talk that you gave at my class, I’ve been flipping tarot cards with increased vigor over the weekend. This morning all the cards were upside down until the last two. A heart with three swords plunging through it plummeted downward. The queen of cups worked an upside-down manipulation and a devil glowered hugely over two chained lovers licked by flames. Above that, finally, an upright card: the three of pentacles. Its primary term is skill. You said (something like) readers can come to their own conclusions about the questions your stories raise. Meditating on your lecture as I swam laps this morning, it occurred to me that tarot functions like that too. You flip a sequence of images that seem to burst with somewhat open-ended narratives, and the reader interacts. I was swimming to burn off a recurrent anxiousness, and was thinking about or relating to O, the central character in the titular story, with his litany of “head problems.” I plowed my arms and legs. I thought the rhythm would help get the ideas into a place where I could access them without having to think. Or where I could think about them with another part of my body besides the head.
MM: That isn’t just a metaphor, right? Did you know the gut is called the second brain? Because it has 100 million neurons, major neurotransmitters like serotonin, and brain proteins. On the subject of materials to think with, be they our guts, cracks in mud paths, palms, cards, or bowls of water, any dynamic, motile, anamorphic surface can be used to foretell, or dream-read. I used the made up tarot deck in the divination scene in “None of This Is Real” to seed the stories proleptically with images, metonyms, foreshadowings (foretellings, pre-dictions) that have specific intentions and are there to guide the reader, if not O as the protagonist, forward to slowly build an understanding of what his symptoms portend.
AD: The story unfolds with an intentional, particular logic, but at the same time, in your talk at Pratt, you raised the idea that “the story sets up its own rules and you have to rigorously try not to get in the way.” Is this a variation on the idea that “language thinks for us”? Is it possible to describe the strange marriage between analysis and intuition that can happen when writing?
MM: Perhaps not getting in the way of the story has something to do with recognizing and accepting its nascent directions and potentials, which can mean not holding on to preconceptions—not just about the story, but about who you are as a writer, what you think you are willing to open up to in your work. Think of a writer receiving a tarot reading and getting some scary cards as O does in “None of This Is Real.” On the one hand (so to speak) the writer could accept, in order to study, the cards that are dealt. On the other, the writer could reshuffle and deal again to try to get different cards that feel more comfortable. But if a card comes up that shows some image of confusion, cruelty, or death and the writer puts it back to try to get another card depicting, say, luxury, peace, and love, then that severely limits the terrain one is analyzing and intuiting. Writing and teaching are so similar in this regard; they both require active receptivity. The “strange marriage between analysis and intuition that can happen when writing fiction,” as you so beautifully put it, requires steadily building the capacity to realize what’s in front of you to, in a way, bring into being what is already there, but occluded. It brings to mind John Cage’s idea of anarchic harmony: “Music is everywhere you just have to have the ears to hear it.” Intention is just one among many factors.
AD: Yes! The question of intention also becomes mysterious and compelling when considering reading. With certain genres, part of the pleasure, as a reader, lies in anticipating narrative climax and resolution. In other instances, I read to abandon intention and control in favor of an unknown outcome.
MM: Yes: to lose your way, not to read for outcomes, and perhaps even to relearn how to read, as a formally unfamiliar text teaches us how to read anew. Alexander Kluge has said that the best thing a book can do is stimulate the reader to independent action. There’s a continuum of formal possibilities vis-à-vis galvanizing readers’ independent action. In Mimesis Erich Auerbach places Homer at one end of the continuum and the story of the sacrifice of Isaac at the other. The Homeric is the utterly explicated legend, “uniformly illuminated” as Auerbach puts it. Though the legend can contain auguries, or omens, as The Odyssey does, the story itself doesn’t function like an augury: it isn’t open-ended and therefore doesn’t necessarily demand interpretation. On the other end, while proscriptive and moralistic, we have the biblical story which, by means of elision, stimulates exegesis, interpretative labor, oracular reading – independent action. (Depending on how crazy you are of course, it’s possible to do a literalist reading of anything. Or, depending on how real a story feels to you.)
The contemporary writer’s toolkit includes radical disjunction, attention to materiality (language as material like paint or film), conceptualism, and other such modes that galvanize reader’s independence. These techniques can lead to unprecedented cognitive pleasures, altered states, and insights. They can shift ideological ground, expose social toxins, remediate cultural habits and defamiliarize banalities. “None of This Is Real” is concerned with epistemological crises and so it cruises this continuum, rather than positioning itself firmly. In fact the story parodies taking positions, imagining the fixed stance as a cathartic but ultimately inadequate exercise.
AD: Your gift for code-switching is evident if we again consider O, who “cruises” from political theory to the scientific method to astrology and beyond, as in this passage:
Even as a question mark hung constantly over the idea of astrology, or any such system, O found himself resorting aloud to occult typologies as if he were a committed acolyte, all the while doubting in secret and secretly hoping to arrive at something he could not doubt.
One way O tries to synthesize these different systems of knowledge is by writing fiction. In fact, O keeps an “unbearable correspondences file” full of research for his unfinished novel manuscript (does every writer have a file like this?). You write, “He was paralyzed by the messy, sorrowful wilderness of all that content.” Instead of finishing his novel, O turns into a shark. Instead of turning into another species, you wrote this book. Can we talk about how fiction works?
MM: To speak generally about the kind of work fiction does, I would say it does the same work communities do when they have agency: fiction argues; it remediates; it exposes; it redeems; it alchemizes; it heals; it includes; it condemns; it mythologizes; it models; it detoxifies; it connects; it entertains and it trucks in prophesy. If we think of fiction as a special form of apprehension, an organ for detecting what otherwise goes unregistered, or antennae with which to try to detect the emergent, historical present (i.e. not in the business of replicating outcomes) then part of what I think I am registering on my too-little antennae is a culture pathologically lacking in justice.
AD: I love this idea of fiction as “an organ for detecting what otherwise goes unregistered.” Many of your characters possess just such finely tuned antennae—most remarkably, Lutz, Jr. in “Transformer,” the final story in the collection. I just finished reading that story, and I am devastated, devastated—but any other outcome would seem beside the point. “Transformer” seems to echo with fairy-tale remnants, not as a flat-out retelling but as a borrower of shapes, tendencies, figures, and traits. Can you talk about its genesis?
MM: Since you used the word devastated to describe your experience of the ending, may I talk instead about endings? I am coming to see the endings of these stories as precipices, rather than arrivals, or returns. It’s vulnerable to say, but this has to do with my lack of faith in closure, an ongoing experience of irresolution, and the suspicion that things won’t “turn out” as the expression goes, or at least that a kind of mortal falling off, rather than resolution, is honest. Endings can be abrupt and inexplicable, like a song that stops in the middle, you know? It doesn’t resolve, won’t be completed.
But I do want to challenge myself to reach further around the bend. I recognize that there is an enormous difference between a vanishing that is conceived of as a return to non-being, the unknown, and the unformed; and vanishing that is expressed as a kind of entropic failure of a system. I end The Spokes [the forthcoming Solid Objects book] with the sentence “Still, we should try.” That is more hopeful perhaps.
AD: I hadn’t thought of the ends of stories as precipices but that image—again, from “Transformer”—of Lutz Junior memorizing her mother’ s face before that world gets erased shot straight into my core. I want to say that devastated is a word I use to describe an amplification of being moved. I use it tenderly. Devastated means to be laid to waste. Being laid to waste at the level of perception and habits of feeling. I want to be devastated by a story; it’s why I read. Devastation as a prerequisite for insight, or for movement. For movements.
MM: What is the genre of devastation, of that which lays us to waste so that we can move, the genre of pity and fear? Tragedy. I was writing drama, I suppose, minus poetic justice. Yes, devastation as the prerequisite to movement; that is so acute. It has to be a survivable devastation. There is an art to surviving isn’t there? Perhaps work is the art of surviving. The children in None of This is Real are all trying to learn that art.
Please visit Miranda Mellis at mirandamellis.com
Amanda Davidson writes, teaches and makes performances. In Brooklyn and online at partedinthemiddle.wordpress.com.