Books In Conversation
Aperture for Glimpsing the Abyss: ALEXANDER BOLDIZAR with Kevin Winchester
(Brooklyn Arts Press, 2017)
At first, Alexander Boldizar’s debut novel, The Ugly, may appear as just another dark comedy. But, as we follow the main character, Muhzduk the Ugli the Fourth, from his village to Harvard Law School and beyond, we realize this is no “standard” story. No, this novel takes its place among the best of the dark comedy genre. The movement was widely popular in the 1960s and ’70s, with some of the best known examples being Irving’s World According to Garp, Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, and Heller’s Catch-22. Like those works, Boldizar’s debut explores the absurdness of the conventions of modern society, of the legal profession, of Harvard and all higher education, of language, of all that is rhetorical convention in a story that is as compelling, current, and intelligent as it is hilarious. Boldizar has created a new myth, a new folklore both starkly fresh and instantly familiar.
To discover a novel that rises to the level of the great dark comedies of the ’60s and ’70s was a treat. The opportunity to interview Boldizar, to discuss the book in this format, is an honor. Mind you, The Ugly is not the easiest read by today’s standards—it’s the deeper end of the literary pool—so let’s dive in and see what’s beneath the surface.
Kevin Winchester (Rail): You are the first post-independence Slovak citizen to receive a JD from Harvard, you lived with the Tuaregs, caught malaria, participated in a voodoo ceremony in Benin, and continue to compete, and medal, in Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitions. Some would consider that a chaotic life of contradictions. Muzhduk is, in a way, an Everyman in that he struggles to make some sense of the contradictions in the world outside of his village. In other words, we all must face a constantly changing world, we must “leave our village.” What are your thoughts on Muzhduk in this regard?
Alexander Boldizar: Within his own village, Muzhduk is anything but an Everyman. He’s the winner of the Dull-Boulder Throw, the heir to the chiefdom. But you’re right, as soon as he encounters the machine of modern society, he becomes an Everyman. I wrote him as both the Slovak fairy tale hero Valibuk, who could rip beech trees out of the ground, and as the Everyman within the tradition of characters like the good soldier vejk, Kaspar Hauser, Don Quixote, Prince Myshkin, Simplicius Simplicissimus, Ignatius J. Reilly, Kohlhaas, K and Franz Biberkopf (from the movie version of Berlin Alexanderplatz).
The Ugly is a book about ideas smashing into each other at different angles of impact and seeing what comes out the other side. I tried to do this at every level, between characters, between character and setting, between settings, and within characters themselves. And leaving the village is one of those clashes.
I thought it would be fun to bring a mountain man—not my half-North Americanized version, but one distilled and fortified in the most remote mountain range in Siberia—to Harvard Law and see what happened. The incongruity was a natural driver for humor, conflict and critique.
In term of the parallels between my life and the novel, Muzhduk is the most obvious—the armature on which he was built was a caricature of my younger self. I was large, drank too much, fought a lot, and had an East European love of the absurd that North Americans sometimes mistook for stupidity.
But his first love interest at Harvard, Oedda, is to some degree a personification of my own education, my intellectual life after leaving home. I dated a “professor doctor doctor” (philosophy and law) there, smartest person I ever knew, but we couldn’t have a proper argument about socks on the floor until I was able to use the jargon of Heidegger, Derrida, Gadamer, Buber, etc. In many ways, the worldview underlying these thinkers was drastically at odds with the simple directness of who I grew up as.
We all have a childhood personality that then gets layers of identity put on top like sedimentary rock, a layer per era of life, and these don’t always match up well. Pooh teaches Muzhduk that life is not a jigsaw puzzle, and Oedda accuses him of being a Coke bottle, of thinking there is one self. If Muzhduk is my naïve youth, Oedda is my higher education and Peggy has admirable characteristics that I’m lacking. So when Muzhduk leaves the village, he has to battle not just a social machine that is far more complex than anything he’d ever imagined, but also the different personalities that accumulate on top of us when we leave the village.
Rail: A common area of exploration for the earlier dark comedy authors is that of language, of words. Muzhduk’s exchange with the librarian while the library is on fire is hilarious, one of the funniest sections of the book. The librarian’s claiming, she “can’t suggest anything because that would imply leaving out something else, which could make [her] liable for [his] incomplete work” is a perfect metaphor for a litigious society, and even more perfect for academia. Buck tells Muzhduk, “Here, the word was invented and stripped of its shadow.” Later, Muzhduk is “crushed by books and sentences and words.” Discuss how you wanted to address language in the novel—both in the novel itself and thematically in today’s society.
Boldizar: In law school, I had no interest in memorizing laws and gravitated towards the critical legal studies people, whose approach to legal hermeneutics was shaped by literary theory. Muzhduk is a mountain, but the book is disturbed by poststructuralist thinkers like Derrida, for whom there’s no such thing as solid ground. He’s an extraordinarily macho protagonist, but somewhere in the background are thousands of pages of feminist critical theory that I read as part of my interest in deconstructing law, people like Luce Irigaray and Simone de Beauvoir.
Through my legal education I saw words shifted in size every day, and through my girlfriend I saw the academic knife fights over hermeneutics. By the time I started The Ugly I could frame arguments in a dozen different schools of thought, but the only thing I wanted to do was get away from analytic rationality, from Socrates, pushed by the absurdity and intellectual desperation of studying law into the academic version of fornicating in a church. I wanted sacrilege, and sacrilege in law school had to be about words.
William Morris, reviewing The Ugly for the Buffalo News, wrote “It’s as if the Harvard Lampoon turned on itself…Kurtz has returned from the jungle and the horror is our institutions.” I had never thought of it in those terms, but he was right. In one sense, I had set out to tear down not just the institutions of law but also its language of logic and rationality. But I had a main character whom I really liked, and who never fully let me go there. Oedda may have been right in every individual sentence she spoke, but she was wrong as a whole.
Nietzsche claimed prose, with nonlyrical language at the most abstract level of his model of perception, could never touch any deeper metaphysical reality. I disagree. I do think it’s possible to create an existential sideways shift with stark straightforward prose. Kafka did it, and I wanted to try as well.
Rail: For me, there are two lines in the book that spoke directly toward some of the fundamental flaws in today’s society, or at least, how one navigates society today. One, Muzhduk says, “Sometimes a man has to make the wrong choice.” The other is when Amadou tells Muzhduk, “Beauty needs an ugliness around which to grow.” Conceptually, what are your thoughts?
Boldizar: Much of North American culture has an implicit aesthetic principle that “to be beautiful everything must be intelligible.” This totalizing cheerful force of logic, of interpretation, destroys the craving for beauty and ugliness, the synthesis of god and billy goat.
In case it’s not clear, to me the alternative to logic was never emotion. I think Trump has shown once again that nothing is cheaper than passion. It was a more complex rationality that could hold mutually contradictory ideas. Something like a Zen koan. I’m a firm believer that everything has within it its own opposite, that every strength is also a weakness, and that the most significant moments grow out of encounters that allow a brief opening that can never be grasped, merely glimpsed or poked for a flash.
But it’s not just a matter of simple opposites. These tensions have to connect at the right angle. They can’t be at ninety degrees, unrelated, like Lautréamont’s chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating room table (they have little to say to each other). Nor can they line up too neatly, like Damien Hirst’s placing a cucumber and a jar of Vaseline in someone’s shopping cart (not an art piece, but a story he told me once illustrating how objects talk). They have to hit at an angle that cracks the great columbarium of concepts that form our modern gods—law, morality, society—and lets in some air.
Rail: You made the comment that this novel may well be more important in America twenty years from now. I think that’s valid socially and politically. You spent nearly sixteen years seeing this book to publication. Times change. What are your thoughts on how the book may be viewed, the differences perhaps, between the time you started, its publication, and twenty years from now in post latest election America?
Boldizar: Having an insane clown as president of the United States does change things. When I started the novel, the cold rationality of the neoliberal internationalist consensus was the biggest threat. Today, on the surface at least, irrationality is a far bigger threat.
At the same time, however, you see the increased manipulation of language, and a decrease in the thickness of the veil that the law uses to legitimize power. It’s still a little too early—right now we’re still at a stage where Trump has thrown satire for a loop, where even his own administration can’t tell what’s satire in the news anymore. But give him a few more years and I do think American audiences will start to appreciate the quasi-surrealist stuff more.
There’s a reason why Eastern Europeans became absurdists. Good, clean democracies have a hard time appreciating the absurdist aesthetic, but living under a repressive regime teaches you to laugh at tragedy. You never know what you’ll wake up to—you could wake up as a cockroach or Trump could rip apart families or everyone around you could become a rhinoceros. Taking on a slightly absurdist tilt allows you to be more critical, authentic and empathetic at the same time, particularly to the irrationality of trauma. And the age of Trump will require that combination.
Rail: In the terms of picking one thing you hoped the book would achieve (not sales or readership, but as a writer), do you feel the novel achieves that now that it’s been out in the world for some time and you have the perspective of distance?
Boldizar: If I didn’t have ears, I’d be smiling all the way around my head. When you’re breaking rules and trying something genuinely different you’re never certain that it works until it’s read. I wanted to open up the idea of “what is thinking?”—not to give answers, just to open up the space while telling a funny story.
In Chronicle of My Life, Stravinsky wrote that music is “powerless to express anything at all: a feeling, an attitude, a psychological state.” By the end, I didn’t want to jump into the abyss, but I did want to create the opening for a glimpse of it. If the book were music, I wouldn’t want it whistled on the way out of the concert hall.