“I Like the Triangulation of Various Wests”: An Interview With Joni Murphy


Double Teenage, the new novel from Joni Murphy, begins as a coming-of-age story following two friends, Celine and Julie, who live in the Southwest in the 1990s. What begins as a familiar story soon ventures into a much bolder specificity: as Murphy follows the two central characters forward in time, the book’s scope begins to encompass questions of art, globalization, and the violence of everyday life. I talked with Murphy via email about the origins of the novel, how she reached the novel’s substantial thematic range, and more.

There’s plenty going on in Double Teenage–everything from a carefully observed study of a friendship to observations of tragedies personal and national to a very specific evocation of the mid-1990s to thoughts on and criticisms of contemporary art. Was there one particular place where the writing of the novel began for you?

Looking back, I see a few clear sparks.

I spend a big chunk of my 20s studying interwar Germany. I wrote a thesis on Walter Benjamin and childhood. But over time I had to come to terms with the fact that I was studying childhoods and a general world very different than my own. So I had European theory as this base, but I had to work backward into a lot of myself I’d rejected.

This led me to trying to write an essay about Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire in relation to NAFTA. That work in turn led me to making a performance for a now defunct, gallery in Pilsen, the Chicago neighborhood that’s very emblematically Mexican. The performance lecture was called “Victory Over the Sun Was Never Won in the West” and consisted of a collage of my writing and others (Benjamin, Baudelaire, McCarthy, Bolaño, Malevich, the local news).

At the end of the performance I played Rebekah Del Rio’s version of “Llorando”. She’s the woman who lip-sync/really sings in Mulholland Drive. Her image, and how it brought me back to New Mexico and parts of myself I’d been suppressing with kind of masculine theory really started this work.

Throughout the novel, Celine and Julie remain in close proximity to a series of communities near borders, whether it’s Juarez or Vancouver. Did you have this relationship to space and geography planned from the outset?

The geography began organically and then I made it more deliberate. Because I really am from New Mexico and I’ve lived in both Vancouver and Chicago, I can write about the sensory reality of those places with some confidence. But I’ve also lived in other places I didn’t write about because they didn’t fit with the themes. I was picking and choosing for dramatic effect.

There is also a way in which these cities are all transit zones. I did a fair amount of research on manufacturing, shipping, and smuggling. These three places are important hubs but also kind of overlooked (compared to LA, NY, Toronto). These places relationships to the market and black market were important to me.

I like the triangulation of various Wests—the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the Midwest. I think they are all so haunted by Europe, by Mexico, and by the First Nations. I wanted it to be a western novel, but strained through particular feminine perspectives.

Also I guess I liked the contrast of weather and physical landscape. The hot, dry, and mountainous New Mexico vs. the wet, cool, and coastal British Columbia, and then the flat, windy, but architecturally vertical extremes of Chicago.

There are multiple references made to Jean-Paul Marat in Double Teenage, beginning with a production of Marat/Sade that occurs early in the novel. Do you find him to be a figure that looms over the proceedings at all?

I feel like he emerged as a recurring figure partially by chance. It’s funny as I’m writing this I’m remembering a moment with an English teacher when I was 18 and I was like “do you think the French Revolution was the start of modernity?” And she got very excited and was like “yes! I’m so glad you’re thinking about that.” My kind of clueless young self stumbled on him as some kind of key.

Eric Santner, a German scholar at University of Chicago, wrote a book—The Royal Remains—about the double body of power. Without getting too much in the weeds, the big idea I gleaned from it is how theoretically the monarch once had to contain or bear the health or illness of the whole nation. The king could be sick for and with his sick country. But with revolutions and the push towards a democratic sharing of power, the diseases of nationhood kind of exploded, infecting everyone. Marat suffered from a horrible skin condition, so he kind of lived with radical sickness, quite literally.

Santner also writes about the famous Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Marat, the radicalism of showing a leader naked and dead in a bathtub below a large swath of compositional darkness. He suggests that this all this darkness is an abstract representation of the unrepresentable people, the citizens.

I was also attracted to Marat as a figure because he’s a fragment. He is multiple. For us there’s David’s version, Peter Weiss’s, Peter Brooks. Then there are all the actors who’ve played him. As with all characters in theater, he’s a multiple. The multiple is pretty important to Double Teenage.

Another point I like about his story is the reversals of masculine feminine imagery.

Charlotte Corday—a woman who was traumatized by the revolution and tried to use violence to end violence— stabbed him as he lay naked in a bath. It is like a fairytale image, maybe an Angela Carter or Kathy Acker fairytale, but still. In this one image we have violence, intimacy, political theory, madness, sensuality, blood, water and reversals of traditional gender positions. I like all these resonances.

I was curious about the way that things are named or not named: people like Elliott Smith and Sam Sheppard are referred to by name, but other artists and works of art are not. I’m thinking of a reference late in the novel to a film which I believe is Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but which goes unnamed. How did you decide which people and works to name, and which to leave more ambiguous?

This whole book is just full of references. I could have talked about Caryl Churchill and Kathleen Hanna, who meant as much or more to me than Smith or Sheppard. But at the time—and perhaps still—those two men were more famous and their names were more emblematic of specific scenes. So they were more likely on the girl’s lips. I thought about naming everyone and in my mind and notes I have the long list and originally many more names were dropped. But as I was editing I cut a lot out and let the ghost vibe remain.

I spent a lot of time trying to sensually trying to remember what it felt like not to have the Internet, to not have Wikipedia and IMDB and Rap Genius. I listened to so many mix tapes that didn’t have people’s names because my friends didn’t always write them on the tiny tape liner, and if I saw some film and then forgot who was in it, I couldn’t easily look up the cast list.

But then of course there are also those people who are kind of unmistakably themselves and you are always, first and foremost watching them. Like Madonna is Madonna and you can’t unsee her, which made her a good star and a bad actress. This is kind of true for Sam Sheppard or Bob Dylan or a whole list of others. You’re not just listening or reading or watching them, you’re buying into their landscape.

Alternately this is also true of Werner Herzog’s work, someone I did not name. But then, I think in that instance, the character watching his film is totally sad and on drugs and kind of immersed in herself and her art, so she wouldn’t bother naming him because she has no distance. At that moment she feels that his work is basically a part of her.

But, overall, who was named and who was unnamed was an organic result of both cutting and feeling.

In the conversation that you did with Chris Kraus for Bookforum, you discussed her novel Summer of Hate and the way that both your novel and hers evoke the traumatic effects of a particular moment in American history. Are there any other works that you feel also summon a similar evocation of that moment in history and its aftereffects?

I have been turning this question over and over. At first I made a list of fiction writers who really spoke to their moments in history, but then I realized that my list was not very connected to the United States (I was thinking of writers like Peter Handke, Christopher Isherwood and Lydia Fagundes Telles).

Then I reread your question and had to revise. I think in a U.S. context Chris Kraus stands out as a novelist because she’s political and personal and fictional simultaneously. Unfortunately, I find that’s a combination the MFA world is pretty bad at dealing with, let alone teaching well. I think poets and essayists (like Maggie Nelson, Lauren Berlant, Susan Buck-Morss, Claudia Rankine) have an easier time speaking to their time, maybe because the oppressive unspoken rules of fiction aren’t hanging over them.

In terms of fiction, what comes immediately to mind are Jared Kobek’s Atta, Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen, Leanne Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love (a Canadian book but America is a continent so). All these demonstrate the author’s sensitivity to the political and the individual as strained through recent history.

But my reading habits veer towards the international and or the old, so I’m kind of ignorant of a lot of contemporary U.S. fiction.

In the fourth part of the novel, the structure of the text becomes more experimental and fragmented. What prompted this stylistic shift?

As I was working on these questions I came across a note I’d written to myself about the ending. It said:

“Ending? Julie writes an essay?

The girls go for self talk, self help, they share and over share gossip which is a form of spelling. Can we make good spells from bad words?

The master’s tools?

Don’t be general or clichéd or mean. Don’t tear yourself up.

These are girls trying.

— I’m trying Celine says

— Not to see myself as a victim.

The girls spell, this is their work.

The work of surviving is a spell.”

That was my poetic directive to myself.

The first three chapters are me “behaving myself” stylistically speaking. I tried to be good and tell a coherent, chronological story about specific characters. The forth section however, is both a criticism or rejection of this kind of story telling, and an embrace of the episodic, diegetic, circular, traumatized mode of telling. In my mind it’s the section that the characters themselves would write. It was originally a series of poems and quotations that I couldn’t figure out how to fit with the rest. I considered making them footnotes or endnotes, but in the end they made the most sense as a kind of retelling in miniature of what came before.

I needed to find a way of communicating that this story was not really about the two main characters, that fiction uses individuals to get people to care about society, but that can become a way of fetishizing the singular. I would never write a story from the point of view of a girl working in a maquiladora in Juarez, but neither would I want to just describe their bodies as things (as Bolaño did to devastating effect in 2666) because I related to them as beings, but at the same time I am not in their position.

So the end of this book, this different style, was my way of saying individuals matter, but we’re all embedded in systems and structures. They/ we belong to a world of connections in which we’re told these connections don’t exist. Only when a pattern is overwhelmingly horrific does it get recognized as a pattern.

It was my way of writing a big zoom out, as if this were a film and I was saying “these characters are alive and living beside many others who matter just as much.”

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