Arthur Meursault, author of Party Members, talks with Eric Mader, an American expat writer working in Taiwan. Mader’s published works include A Taipei Mutt (2002) and more recently Idiocy, Ltd., which has been translated into Chinese.
This Author Interview is by far the longest we’ve had on Bookish Asia so I’ve switched from having bold font to distinguish the interviewer’s name from the author’s to instead using initials for both: A.M. = Arthur Meursault and E.M. = Eric Mader.
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Arthur Meursault: For your latest book, Idiocy, Ltd., you have chosen the relatively rare medium of prose poetry to form the bulk of the content. The prose poem is a seldom seen medium outside of literary journals. What is it about this style that appealed to you? Did you ever consider going for the more traditional approach of verse poetry or essays?
Eric Mader: I write in a lot of different genres. Still, probably my go-to genre is the prose poem, which is why, though most readers relate more to my comic novel A Taipei Mutt, the collection of pieces in Idiocy, Ltd. is more important to me personally. The way a lot of writers now practice it, the prose poem has a kind of explosive quality: it offers an approach that allows one to, as it were, infect the common genres of language: everything from spy novel to advertisement to nature documentary. The prose poem is often a matter of taking up the style of one or another of these, their verbal tics, and bending the language in an absurdist direction. And so it’s often satirical. But one may also move in a more meditative or literary direction, and unveil something new about language, how language works. The prose poem for me is playful and meditative at the same time.
A.M.: You have mentioned some of the influences in your selection of the prose poem, most notably the little-known French poet Max Jacob. I consider myself fairly well read, but have to admit I had never heard of Jacob. Could you describe more about Max Jacob and his influence on you?
E.M.: Jacob was a French Jew living in the Montmartre district of Paris during the years when Picasso and Braque were pushing the Cubist envelope. Some have called Jacob a kind of Cubist poet, others a proto-surrealist. I don’t think either of these labels really fits. Jacob was a clown, a sort of sad clown with a mystical bent. The mysticism led to a conversion to Catholicism, and the self-deprecating sadness was later confirmed in the most horrible way: he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and died in a Nazi internment camp.
What initially struck me in Jacob was a combination of things. Though not myself Jewish, I’m always drawn to Jewish culture, and especially Jewish humor. And Jacob did amazing things on a small scale with narrative conventions. He had a way of setting out in a text, setting up a certain number of givens or expectations, then prodding the whole edifice to collapse in some delicious, offhand way. It’s true a lot of readers don’t relate to it, don’t get it, but something in me corresponds to this at a deep level. It is for a mind like mine one of the ways we get at the truth of things, or tear apart the veil. I’m convinced the most important truths come interlinked with a nagging absurdity. Which means we can partially get at them by the route of absurdity, or what at first appears absurdity. I’ve a post online that goes into more detail as regards my odd early discovery of Jacob titled “Letter to a Young Prose Poet” for anyone who might be interested.
A.M.: Aside from Max Jacob, are there any other influences that have had an effect on your writing style, especially within the genre of prose poetry?
E.M.: Yes, of course. There are many. By a sad irony, another of my go-to writers was also, like Jacob, a consummate clown, and also died in the custody of a totalitarian regime. Totalitarian regimes must maintain a draconian control on language and thus don’t much like literary clowns. His pen name was Daniil Kharms, and he died, most likely of starvation, locked up in a Soviet mental institution – a common Soviet practice for dealing with people considered ideologically suspect. “Look! This man doesn’t write socialist realism according to Party directives. Our diagnosis? Schizophrenia.” The great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was similarly locked up.
Kharms was a narrative trickster similar in ways to Jacob, but more accessible. Kharms’ prose work is more standardly narrative, while Jacob’s is closer to lyric.
And there are a few American prose poets I read and reread, probably the most interesting of which is Russell Edson.
But since I’ve already talked of the role of absurdist humor, I want to mention another figure. Do you know the comedian Steven Wright? He’s called a comedian – and rightly so, as that’s his profession – but what I see in his stand-up is a brilliant literary mind, a kind of Kafka working at the level of the one-liner. Yes, he’s a Kafka of the everyday, without Kafka’s theological depth, but there’s a similar exasperation driving him. And Kafka was in many ways a humorist. A great book on this is Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed, his reading of Kafka, his lament over Kafka’s translators. And while I’m at it, another great book on finding outrageous irony, and even humor, where one hadn’t expected it, is Harold Bloom’s The Book of J, on the J writer in the opening books of the Hebrew Bible. Bloom’s book was an awakening to me as to what literature can be.
I’m throwing out these names and titles for people to follow up if they want – introductions to a somewhat different approach to literature, more my approach.
A.M.: So how does your special interest in the prose poem and in these various writers relate to your thinking on literature in general? How would you define what you call “your approach”? Do you subscribe to any particular literary school or -ism?
E.M.: Since I spend a lot of my time thinking about literature, that’s a broad question. But I’ll try to be brief. I ought to say to begin with that part of me isn’t all that different from most readers: I love a good novel and am willing to let myself get taken in by even pulpy books. But I have the other side: the more driven or hungered side that makes me focus on what language is doing. I’d say my understanding of literature, in terms of this second side, is that it is a crucial gateway to getting at truth. Not that the truth will be found, but literature allows one to do two necessary things on any pathway toward truth: first, it allows one to entertain possibilities, to try out realities; second, serious literature is deadly to totalizing ideologies. And this latter is key. Since the 19th century, we’ve been immersed in a kind of ongoing acid bath of interrelated ideologies, all of which stem from the Enlightenment. Communism, fascism, and now this deceptively smiley globalist liberalism that many people take for granted as something like The Final Meaning of History. Want to find the most brainwashed person in the room? Find the one who keeps insisting on how “open-minded” they are.
Anyhow, I’m getting off track. The writers that most interest me are those who develop techniques for doing the two things I mentioned: projecting possible new realities; discrediting the shoddy ideologies pushed by our elites through media and our now overly politicized universities.
A.M.: Your book Idiocy, Ltd. covers a wide range of topics, from animals, to the Bible, to random topics of life in Taipei. Is there an overarching theme to the book and how does it relate to the title Idiocy, Ltd.?
E.M.: There isn’t an overarching theme in the way theme is usually understood, but there is the theme of idiocy, which is a little different from foolishness or stupidity. The word is ultimately based on a Greek word, idios, which means something like one’s own, or private. So the idiot is fundamentally a person living in his own head, i.e. an obsessive. The idiot is something like the stupid version of the genius, also usually an obsessive. But the babbling of the idiot, as it leads to absurdity, again can often uncover serious truths through that very absurdity. It’s a question of persistence, as William Blake would say. So if my book covers an odd range of topics, that’s only because I found those most fruitful for applying the kind of babbling I’m up to.
I hope that at least partly answers the question, but I’m not too confident it does.
A.M.: You chose to self-publish both Idiocy, Ltd. and your previous Taiwan-based novel A Taipei Mutt. Did you try the traditional publishing route? Can you describe the publishing route you took for any would-be authors who may be reading this?
E.M.: I’ve never tried the traditional publishing route. Perhaps that’s a mistake. After all, some people claim that a book published by an actual publisher will get roughly 1200% more readers than a self-published book. But I just can’t be bothered. I have enough trouble reading and studying and writing, and living my life, and teaching my classes, and working on Chinese – all these things take up my time, and I’m not interested in sending out manuscripts.
I’ve published these couple books through Amazon, which allows one to put out both print and ebook versions simultaneously, and which offers a functional interface for putting a book together. It takes some work to do a good job of it, but that’s a matter of learning the basics you need in order to self-publish.
A.M.: How has the response to your book(s) been so far? Have you noticed any difference in feedback from Western and Chinese readers?
E.M.: Well, I’d have to say the response to my books in English should be about 1200% percent what it is at present. But no, seriously, I have some very appreciative readers, and other readers who just kind of say “What the fuck is this?” Or they read a few pages of my work and literally look at me like I might be dangerous. “Keep this guy away from the kids.” I do get some good reviews though.
If by “Chinese readers” you’re referring to the Chinese translation of Idiocy, Ltd., yes, I’d say the response has been very good. The book came out in January and it’s selling well. It has an actual publisher, Comma Books, here in Taiwan. I’m very happy with the sales of course, and a bit perplexed, because the genre I’m working in is more a Western thing, dependent on Western kinds of humor. Still, I think a lot of readers here have a pretty good sense of the absurd. The title in Chinese is 白痴有限公司, characters which also appear on the cover of the English version at Amazon, as I always intended to get readers here in Asia.
Arthur Meursault: When reading Idiocy, Ltd., there was one piece in particular that stood out to me as being very familiar to something I’d read previously – the obscure Irish novel The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. The Third Policeman is a surreal novel that plays around with concepts of time, space and repetition, themes that were covered in your piece titled “The Droste Effect,” which even had a whimsical Irish setting. Is there a connection?
Eric Mader: Now that’s really fascinating. It tickles me in a way, because I spent a year or so reading Flann O’Brien obsessively, maybe it was 1999 or 2000. I posted some essays and a biographical sketch online, which is still out there somewhere. And sure, I know The Third Policeman. But the weird thing is, I wrote “The Droste Effect” just a few years ago and wasn’t even thinking about O’Brien. Which makes me wonder if I kind of unconsciously rewrote something I’d read previously. I have The Third Policeman somewhere in storage, either in one of the stacks of cardboard boxes of books in my apartment here or in a storage locker I have to rent because space in Taipei is just too expensive. If you have the book on hand and could find the passage, I’d love to know. I do remember a passage in the book where one character is opening a chest, inside of which is another chest, then another, down to the microscopic level.
As for “The Droste Effect,” it was a kind of one-off experiment. I was trying to reproduce the effect in narrative. I don’t think anyone has ever done it. For people who don’t know what it is, the Droste Effect is basically what you get when you stand in an elevator with mirrored walls and see telescoping images within images of yourself extending to infinity. As one reaches the end of the series, the clarity breaks down. That’s what I tried to do in that pub anecdote.
By the way, an odd thing, but maybe a tip of sorts to writers living in South Asia: I now keep all my books here in Ziploc bags because of this damned humidity, which literally rots books and papers. I have air conditioning, of course, I’d be in an asylum if I didn’t, but still it doesn’t keep the mold from attacking the books. Most of the library I had when I moved here ended up useless. You take up a book and try to read it and start sneezing right away.
A.M.: Can you describe more about yourself and especially how it is you came to arrive – and stay! – in Taiwan. How have your experiences in Taiwan influenced your writing?
E.M.: It was love that brought me here. My wife is Taiwanese and came to the States for grad school. We met in the States, were both studying in the same department, and married soon after meeting. She’s now a professor of creative writing, Comparative Literature, and a poet, writing in Chinese and English under the pen name Mélusine Lin (枚綠金). She also does translation work, and is responsible for the most recent Chinese edition of Christina Rossetti’s poetry and for a translation of one of Julia Kristeva’s major works. We lived together in the States for a while; she was just finishing her PhD. and I had just begun a PhD., so the question was: Should I continue and finish it, another three years, or should we just pack up and move to Taiwan? I decided not to continue, and don’t regret it one bit. Literary academia was already pretty bad in America back then, and it has only gotten worse since. It ruins most people, as the work load and the ever-present Thought Police get more overbearing with each passing year.
Though not actually an academic, I make a living by teaching. Initially it was mostly teaching English to kids, but over time I’m teaching more and more adults and more and more the things I really want to teach: literature, philosophy, Shakespeare, myth, the Bible. There are some extraordinarily intelligent students here in Taipei, it’s a culture that knows how to study, and when I’m teaching an adult class at the private institute where I work, I know that the students in the room are only there because they want to be.
As for the second part of your question, being in Taiwan, and living half in Chinese, has probably been good for my writing. Because, for one, living in a radically different language keeps my mind focused on just how tentative and makeshift all language is. I’m also lucky, specifically, that it’s a Chinese environment I’m in. Because the writing system is absolutely hair-raisingly difficult. The Chinese character system is like the world’s most formidable jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle spread out all over the city, and every day I get a few more pieces to fit.
I should point out that even after twenty years here I’m not actually fluent. Part of this is because for the first dozen or so years I was content just to learn a rough spoken Chinese, enough to deal with the world and have basic conversations. It was only around 2010 that I decided to start seriously learning the characters. And I still only spend a handful of hours on it a week. Which isn’t enough. I intend to up my commitment, sure, but keep getting seduced away by Western literature and my writing.
In my defense I should maybe say I have a pretty high bar for what counts as fluent. I can now talk to anyone about pretty much anything and make myself understood. And as for reading ability, let’s be clear: a smart English speaker could easily learn to read newspapers in German, French and Italian, all three, in the time it takes to learn to read a Chinese newspaper.
A.M.: Your books seem fairly apolitical, with the possible exception of one piece in Idiocy, Ltd. called “Yep” which seems to be a satire on George W. Bush’s speaking style. Is this deliberate?
E.M.: I wouldn’t say I intentionally write apolitical work. Again, it’s a matter of whatever material provokes me to writing. But yes, “Yep” is George W. Bush’s farewell to the Oval Office.
A.M.: You have a piece in Idiocy, Ltd. that satirizes the New Atheist movement and Richard Dawkins in particular. Given recent conservative wins and an overturning of what Barack Obama would term “the right side of history,” do you see the New Atheist moment as having passed its peak?
E.M.: I should give a bit of background on this. I was raised as a Lutheran in the American Midwest, decided at age fifteen that I was an atheist (a pretty typical phenomenon) and didn’t feel my abandonment of Christianity was mistaken until I was 23. I eventually returned to Christianity by converting to Catholicism, after a long period of seeking and study.
Anyhow, when the New Atheist movement was hitting big time, I was curious, wanted to challenge myself, and so read Sam Harris and took on Dawkins’ book The God Delusion. It was really a let-down. Here I was looking for an intellectual challenge, and, well, it was weak stuff. There wasn’t a single argument in Dawkins’ book that was hard to grasp or that compelled deeper thought. Instead, what stuck out just glaringly was the philosophical weakness, the man’s total ignorance of the tradition he was claiming to debunk. I felt embarrassed for him, kind of: “Wow. That’s all you got?”
My understanding of these two in particular, Dawkins and Harris, is that they’re smart teenagers trapped in adult bodies. There’s really a teenage feel to their writing that kind of sticks on one like cheap candy. Harris’ attempts at a scientific ethics – it’s a nightmare in the making. Dawkins has only ever embarrassed intelligent atheists. I don’t deny he’s a sharp biologist. I wouldn’t be able to judge on that front in any case. But as a public intellectual, he’s a cad and a fake.
As regards the political aspect of your question, I don’t think the fall of the Dawkins vision is all that related to the routing of Obama-style liberalism in America. The New Atheism was largely discredited by actual philosophers, was largely a joke even, well before Americans and Europeans began to turn against their neoliberal ruling class.
A.M.: How do promote your books? I noticed some interesting cardboard inserts in Idiocy, Ltd. featuring an orang-utan. Is this a novel new marketing gimmick?
E.M.: The orang-utan cards are marketing for the Chinese edition of the book, which is illustrated. I hand them to people I meet who might be interested in the book. As for other marketing, I mostly depend on reviews. There were a few reviews of the English version, and now a few reviews of the Chinese. I set up an author page on Facebook (Eric Mader 枚德林) last year. It’s slowly building up momentum. But that’s it.
A.M.: In both Idiocy, Ltd. and A Taipei Mutt, you write extensively on the age-old question of dogs versus cats. You seem very much in the dog camp. Do you really distrust cats so much as you seem to in your piece “Cats: Unspeakably Evil Pseudo-Animals from Outer Space”?
E.M.: I much prefer dogs to cats. But I don’t actually hate cats. I just do it professionally, as a gag. I like to rile cat people. And really they don’t have much defense, because, well, they’re cat people.
See? I can’t help it. It’s kind of become a tic.
Arthur Meursault: My favourite piece in your book is “Making the Grade in Naples, Florida” where you describe a comically dystopian gated community of fairly average middle-class, middle-brow American life. Could you elaborate more on your motivations for this piece? Do you really find life back in America so conformist as opposed to life in Taiwan?
Eric Mader: I don’t find life in America conformist in the way that particular Florida community is depicted as conformist. If I set my little dystopia there, it’s because I know Naples, Florida pretty well. My parents moved there in the 1990s and I visit every year. It’s a place of gated communities, golf courses and strip malls, full of retirees from the Midwest. Very clean and predictable, and for most of the years I’ve know it, more than a little stifling. There’s a certain kind of affluent American, not super rich but affluent, who has the idea that they know everything there is to know about the world, and their evidence for this is their affluence. That’s the side of Naples I was satirizing.
The piece was written during the Bush years, but is set in a near future when the US has gone too full bore in the Bush direction, and you have a kind of security state set up on the grounds of patriotism, niceness, and enforced indifference to learning. And there’s the overeating. My dystopia has a policy of enforced obesity, which ends up undoing the main character, as he doesn’t take weight gain seriously enough.
I don’t have a problem with patriotism by the way. It’s when your patriotism becomes culturally blind that you’re liable to make serious missteps. The default assumption during the Bush years was that people in other very different cultures, Iraq say, had this deep, untapped yearning to become like Americans. All they needed was for their dysfunctional governments to be overthrown, and they’d immediately set to imitating us, because, hey, everyone just admires us so much. It’s a pathetic and shallow understanding of culture. It’s self-congratulatory to the point of pathological. But Bush and his team made it a basis of foreign policy – in this case, one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in our history.
Sadly, the Obama administration more or less continued the Bush legacy. And so, if Bush changed Iraq from a nasty authoritarian state to a failed state, Obama did the same for Libya. One of the most stable, successful states in Africa, now a hell hole of warring clans, terror cells and slave markets.
A.M.: What are your favourite books in general, and do you have any favourite books about Taiwan, China or the greater region?
E.M.: Favorite books in general: that’s another broad question. I’ll try to answer it a bit systematically.
First, I’m always very interested in the beginning of things, such as the beginning of the Hebrew tradition in the Bible, or the beginnings of Greek writing and Greek philosophy, the pre-Socratics and Plato; also in the beginnings of the novel in Europe, with a special interest in François Rabelais. So I’ve spent a lot of my time over the years studying beginnings – the foundational texts of this or that tradition.
As or modern literature, aside from the prose poets, there’s a basic list of writers I keep returning to. So: Rimbaud and Kafka come to mind right away, writers that are always worth rereading, approaching from different angles. Samuel Beckett is another of these. Apollinaire has always been a favorite; Central European writers like Bohumil Hrabal and Bruno Schulz; the Russians – and by the way, there’s a novel published not many years ago by Eugene Vodolazkin, titled Laurus, that is a major new Russian masterpiece.
Some others: Julio Cortázar’s stories; Hemingway’s stories, Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, and special kudos to George Saunders, whose work I’ve taught for years and whose story collections, especially the first, are like nothing else in American literature. Saunders is one of the few living writers that can put me almost in awe, and is apparently a nice guy too, as he was kind enough to keep up a short correspondence with me, a relative nobody, while he was working on his Lincoln novel.
Another writer whose work I admire, at least his first two books, is the poet Gabriel Gudding.
These are writers one can keep learning from. And by the way, your novel Party Members impressed me enormously – really knock-down brilliant satire, definitely some of the blackest black humor I’ve read. The book is a kind of high-speed horror show, and it works. Bravo!
As for Chinese literature or books on the region, here I’m pretty much of a dolt. I spend my “Chinese time” working on contemporary Mandarin, and I’m just now getting to the point where I can read some literary texts, with a dictionary nearby of course. Lu Xun is great, but I’ve read him mostly in English. Everybody loves Lu Xun though, no? I did notice a couple allusions to his work in your book. There are probably others I didn’t notice. Chinese literature is a project for my future.
A.M.: Finally, what’s next for Eric Mader? Anything in the pipeline?
E.M.: I’ll be publishing another book within months. The working title is Minor Scratches: A Taiwan Miscellany. It will contain new prose poetry similar to the work in Idiocy, Ltd., but also a grab bag of other things: essays and tales, even some crackpot collaborative tales written with my students here. I’m also hoping, within a couple years, that a Chinese translation of A Taipei Mutt will be published. We’ll see.
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