Reading Jacob Wren‘s Polyamorous Love Song takes the reader into a densely-constructed series of narratives. Writers wrestle with the familiar, political radicals engage in shootouts with law enforcement, and intellectuals vanish into their own narratives. It’s dizzying stuff. I should probably also mention that the political radicals mentioned above are restless, gun-toting mascots; that such a concept can work as both absurdly funny and utterly terrifying is one of the strengths of Wren’s novel. In advance of Wren’s reading at McNally Jackson on Tuesday, September 9th, I checked in with him about his new novel, his influences, epigraphs, and more.
The structure of Polyamorous Love Song at first suggests that it will be a series of loosely connected vignettes; then they gradually converge. How did you come up with the structure of the novel?
There is a Nicholas Mosley novel I read, I think I read it about twenty years ago, called Impossible Object. And I’m not sure if this is how it actually was, or if this is only how I misremember it, but I think of this book as a series of chapters in which, in each chapter, you’re not sure if you’re continuing with the same story or if you’ve left the previous story and are on to a new one. Characters reoccur but you’re never completely sure if they’re the same characters or only similar ones. Parts of stories repeat from new angles or in new ways. I must have had a bit of this in mind when I began Polyamorous Love Song. I was wondering about a novel in which, at the beginning of each new chapter, we start again somewhere else. Each time you’re not completely sure exactly where you are, as a way of keeping both myself and the reader off-kilter. And then, gradually, as the book progresses, themes, situations and characters become more and more intertwined. Like how in life there are times when you think you’ve made a breakthrough, arrived at a new situation, but then slowly realize you are in fact only repeating previous patterns in slightly new ways. As with all of my books, I was basically searching for something that I wasn’t expecting when I began, to keep surprising myself as I go, and hopefully in the process keep surprising the reader as well.
In the first chapter, there’s a discussion of fictionalization: specifically, there’s the character of Paul, whose real-life inspiration doesn’t want to be fictionalized, and who is assigned traits that the “prime” version lacks. Throughout the book, there are these narratives nestled within one another. Did you have this idea of layering the narratives from the outset?
Another influence might be The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki. It is a “frame-tail” (much like One Thousand and One Nights), a story within a story within a story, etc. It was written between 1805 and 1815 and, when I read it, it felt to me like one of the most contemporary things I had experienced in a long time. This juxtaposition between reading something written two hundred years ago and a feeling that I was reading something very much of the current moment was striking to me. I thought that this was, if I were to be honest with myself, what I actually wanted to do in literature: to write something now that would still feel in some ways current hundreds of years down the line (if human culture, or literature, even still exist.) Of course, this is a terrible, even paralyzing goal to give oneself. There is no way to accomplish it and even if you succeed you won’t have any way of knowing you have done so. Layering narratives was a far more modest and achievable goal, and this is also of course deeply connected with how I experience thinking and my own life.
In the second chapter, there’s a gulf presented between what is learned about narrative and how more experimental artists work with their chosen medium. Is that intended to be echoed in the way the novel itself is plotted?
Yes, I hope that the themes of the book (art and ethics, sex and violence, how can art exceed its own boundaries to become a part of our daily lives and would this even be emancipatory, blurring one’s own life with moments of fiction) are reflected in the form and structure of the book as well. I am searching for ways in which the themes I’m struggling with can alter the writing on every level, searching for ways to meld my influences with approaches that feel new to me as they are unfolding on the page, to make formal and thematic discoveries during the process of writing, figuring it out as I go.
The Mascot Front is, as concepts go, a fantastic one. Where did the idea of revolutionaries in costumes come from?
I think it must have, in part, come out of my previous book Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. That book was about a group of activists who attended something referred to only as “the meetings,” a regular gathering that takes place in a slightly dystopian future. The only rule of these meetings is that they are only allowed to talk, not allowed to engage in any actual activism, for fear that if they do they will be arrested, tortured or killed. The meetings are a place to prepare the way, get ready for a future in which things might begin to calm down and activism will once again become viable. These fictional meetings continued my reflections on the political uses of violence, and I wondered if violence could effectively be a tool for emancipatory politics. I must have had the feeling that attempting a violent left-wing, grassroots revolution today might be almost as absurd as people who wear furry mascot costumes at all times fighting a revolutionary war for their right to wear mascot costumes at all times. And yet the Cuban revolution actually happened, not even that long ago. But something has changed. (The current dialog about the over-militarization of the police suggests what.) In Polyamorous Love Song the Mascot Front are imperiled, on the verge of extinction, but also, I believe, at least somewhat successful. Their undertaking is absurd but also inspiring, even hopeful. And in this violent absurdity there is also something that connects and questions the outer boundaries of what might be considered art.
When I see the term “new filmmaking” in here, I’m reminded of the “new flesh” in the film Videodrome. Was that a conscious allusion?
Wow, I saw Videodrome so long ago, when it first came out, and haven’t seen it since. It certainly wasn’t a conscious allusion but the “new flesh” must still be in my subconscious somewhere. And Cronenberg is also Canadian. I actually think there must be a few interesting parallels between Videodrome and Polyamorous Love Song, but I would really have to see the film again to comment further. Sometimes I feel like my work is such a strong reaction against Canadian literature, searching for something more international, less conventional, more unexpected or adventurous. But perhaps this desire blocks me from realizing the many ways in which my work is strangely Canadian. I find it hard to remember all the Canadian artists I like (Glenn Gould, Destroyer, Guy Maddin, the little known writer Juan Butler, I’m sure there must be so many more) and see how my work could be seen as well within this tradition of Canadian eccentricity. Do they like Canadians in New York?
Quotes from Nicole Brossard and Fernando Pessoa serve as epigraphs for two of the chapters; a quote from The Rules of the Game is used as the title for one of them. There’s a discussion of the latter in the book, but not either quote. At any point, did you consider working your experiences with the quotes into the narrative the way you did with Renoir’s film?
Yes, Nicole Brossard is another Canadian artist I like. (This makes me realize that I have only, so far, mentioned male writers in this interview. This is a terrible and unforgivable oversight on my part. For the record, some of my favorite writers are: Chris Kraus, Juliana Spahr, Lynne Tillman, Renee Gladman, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jeanne Randolph, Avery F. Gordon and Masha Tupitsyn.) I didn’t consider blending either the Brossard or the Pessoa epigraphs into the narrative, but there are several other quotes that do appear in a more integrated manner. One thing I’m often nervous about is how much I love quotations. I could easily fill my entire book with quotations, quotations on every page, and definitely have to restrain myself. I believe this has something to do with my lack of schooling, with the fact that I’m an autodidact. When you’re an autodidact I suspect you read differently, have more of a natural desire to share bits and pieces of the things you’ve read since there was no opportunity to do so in school. Or maybe when you’re an autodidact it is only this embarrassing need to announce: look at all the things I’ve read.
When did you arrive on the title for the book?
There is a cut passage from Polyamorous Love Song that addresses this question and I thought I would simply include it here, since it is my favorite passage that for some reason didn’t make the final cut:
“The original title for this book was Artists Are Self-Absorbed. And then, as the book was nearing completion, I suddenly panicked, feeling I couldn’t give the book such a negative title, that sending it out into the world with a self-defeating name was almost a form of self-sabotage, and my entire life had been a series of incidents of self-sabotage and now was the time to change. To get on my own side and, hopefully, turn things around a bit. And in a way I already had another title in my back pocket: Polyamorous Love Song. It was a title I had used for a short-lived music column and it was a title that had already received much love. The idea of the column was that most love songs, mainstream or otherwise, are directed towards one person, the ultimate soul mate or new excitement, and maybe a polyamorous love song, a love song directed towards a few (or many) soul mates, might undermine some of the basic songwriting assumptions, be a small step towards a more liberating, emancipatory way of being alive. Then something else occurred to me: that this explanation might also be a form of self-sabotage. So many paradoxes piled upon paradoxes.
And then another thought. Maybe all works of art are some kind of polyamorous love songs, offerings sent out into the world in order to get everyone to love you. Works of art and literature are not directed towards one person but towards many. Songs in the sense of bird song, messages thrown out into the world. At times I felt that everything about being an artist is encapsulated in the tension between these two titles, between Artists Are Self-Absorbed and Polyamorous Love Song. And by changing the title it was almost like I was trying to say: look, I’m no longer self-absorbed. I’m not the same person I was when I started writing this book, when I started dreaming it. Or at least I wish I wasn’t. However, I fear I am more the same than ever.”
In the novel, the character of Paul realizes that he reflexively writes about fascists. Was that based on any particular writing tics?
Yes, this particular moment is more autobiographical than I would like to admit. I’m always, often against my better judgment, writing about fascism, capitalism, environmental collapse. I do think these are some of the important themes of our time, but the way they keep appearing in almost every single paragraph I write, often conflated with my own loneliness or depression, often feels, to me, to be a bit too much, and these sentences are always the ones I think most about cutting or leaving in. Is it possible to defeat fascism with literature? Am I only preaching to the choir or are there ways I can formulate these questions that will leave the reader off-kilter, help them see the matter in new ways or even lead to action? These questions are, in one sense, only mental habits, but they are also mental habits because they are what in Russia were apparently referred to as ‘accursed questions’, meaning questions that you can spend your entire life thinking about and never really arrive at a satisfying answer.
What are you presently working on?
I am working on a new book entitled Rich and Poor. It is about a man who washes dishes for a living who decides to kill a billionaire for political reasons, hoping to set off an endless domino chain of copycat crimes that in some sense might be a form of revolution. I feel this answer very much relates to my answer to the previous question.