Interviews

Rodrigo Fresán on Science Fiction, Nabokov, and Bob Dylan

For over two decades, Rodrigo Fresán has been making a name for himself in the Spanish-speaking world. His works are sprawling, polymathic, ambitious — as stylistically and intellectually stimulating as anything in contemporary literature. Last year, Open Letter Books released Will Vanderhyden’s translation of The Invented Part, the first in what will become a trilogy depicting a famous author who climbs into the Hadron Collider in the hopes of merging his consciousness with the God particle.

This year, they have gifted English speakers with a translation of The Bottom of the Sky, a structurally inventive and mysterious love letter to science fiction. A touching exploration into the nature of friendship, love, memory, and time.

Rodrigo Fresán will be at Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park on Thursday April 26, in conversation with Rachel Cordasco. In preparation for the event, we discussed The Invented Part, The Bottom of the Sky, and the nature of invisibility.

Jeffrey Carl Mull

The Invented Part is the first novel in what will eventually become a trilogy consisting of The Invented Part, The Dreamed Part, and The Remembered Part. One might be inclined to say that all these faculties are one and the same (to dream is to invent, and vice versa, and all lived experience is a remembrance of sorts, apart from some ungraspable concept of the present). What distinguishes these three processes for you, either in life or in art?

Rodrigo Fresán

First of all, it wasn’t supposed to be a trilogy at all. But after finishing The Invented Part I found I couldn’t shake off the voice of the “hero”: that sort of mutant third-person singular that sounds/reads like an oh so very close first-person. At first, my idea was to write something very short: the story of a night in the life of two kids going out on a walk with their sort of crazy uncle. But it wasn’t working . . . Suddenly, I realized that those two kids were the future Writer/Ex-writer protagonist and his little sister Penelope. And then everything clicked and fell into place, like pieces of a puzzle in progress.

Then it struck me that to invent and to dream and to remember are the three engines and, at the same time, the fuel that starts and keeps them running, like some sort of opposite yet complementary mirrors / lenses / telescopes / microscopes, when you decide to look something in the eye or allow that something look into you. Finally, when you invent and dream and remember, you sort of edit and rewrite reality. So then the next step is to find someone who believes in that vision. Which leads me directly to the thank-you-thank-you-thank-you to Chad Post and Open Letter Books for the secret story behind my books: The Published Part.

Jeffrey Carl Mull

I’ve been trying to read your work for years, since I first heard someone in Mexico describe for me the plot of Mantra, which sounded miraculous. But my Spanish is very poor, and for a long time Natasha Wimmer’s translation of Kensington Gardens was very hard to find in the United States. So to be suddenly presented with The Bottom of the Sky, The Invented Part, and soon The Dreamed Part, all in such a short amount of time, has been an incredible gift. Has there been any discussion of translating some of your older works?

Rodrigo Fresán

Open Letter is going to publish The Dreamed Part and Mantra. Those two books are already under contract with Chad Post and, I hope, with Will Vanderhyden as the writer/author of my books in English. I guess, I hope, they also will be interested in The Remembered Part that will come out in Spanish in October ’19. After that, I guess the sky—and the bottom of the sky—is the limit. There’s a lot to explore: Argentine History (Historia argentina, my debut) and the novel Esperanto (working as a compilation of singles and a conceptual album dealing with my country’s “dirty war”), the short stories of Lives of the Saints (Vidas de Santos) and the narrative essays of Handcraft (Trabajos Manuales), and one of my personal favorites: the mega-collection The Speed of Things.

Jeffrey Carl Mull

I’m trying to imagine what a trilogy of such a novel as The Invented Part might look like. The framing device of the story is that a Famous Writer merges his consciousness with the Hadron Collider, becoming an omniscient God-like entity. While everything ties back to and is theoretically being observed/controlled by this newly deified Writer, the rest of the narrative goes in so many different directions and styles. I suspect The Writer carries on through the series, but what about the other characters and plots? Will there be more of Penelope and the Young Man, or is this a trilogy in more of a thematic and stylistic sense?

Rodrigo Fresán

Well, The Dreamed Part came out almost a year ago in Spanish and yes: more of The Writer. And a lot more Penelope. And a very disturbing childhood episode involving both of them that explains the mobile-phone phobia and gadget-hating of the protagonist. Also, Fitzgerald’s role in the first book as a sort of patron-saint/ghost is occupied by Emily Brontë and Vladimir Nabokov and, in a very subtle way, by Bob Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” Also, more flashes of science fiction, in a time when humanity has lost the ability to dream and everyone is sort of sleepwalking around.

I’m in the middle of writing The Remembered Part now (coming out in October 2019) and I can give you an advanced summary of some of the ingredients of the final course: more of The Writer, more Penelope, Hey Walrus (the aforementioned uncle of the kids) working/suffering with The Beatles during the recording of The White Album, more of the Karma family and a stampede of giant green cows, Proust, Dracula, more Nabokov, assorted planes and airports and, yes, many oh so accelerated particles.

Jeffrey Carl Mull

The protagonists of both The Bottom of the Sky and The Invented Part seem to be caught in a liminal space between “political” and “apolitical” art, not really seeming entirely welcome in either camp. Can I ask what you personally feel to be the role of politics in literature, and what are the moral responsibilities of art?

Rodrigo Fresán

My two “political books” are, I guess, Historia argentina [Argentine History, 1991] and Esperanto (1995): the first, a short story collection and the second, a novel that deal with the dark side of Argentina. The challenge in both books was to deal with all those topical-testimonial themes—military junta, desaparecidos, Eva Perón, Falklands/Malvinas War— in a new and much more “fun” way.

Also, I was sort of kidnapped when I was a ten-year-old in Buenos Aires. (Nothing too dramatic but, in a twisted way, fun; and I remember how that episode made feel proud and happy that I finally had a story to tell: yes I already was/wanted to be a writer. I tell the whole story in the last piece of Historia Argentina).

But I think that Nabokov, to me, is the exemplary paradigm: an eccentric who becomes canonical with a novel (Lolita) just so he can become more eccentric (Pale Fire, Ada, and that masterpiece that is Transparent Things. And by the way, sorry folks: the Great American Novel was written by a Russian who reinvented the English language and the landscape of American letters, with the help of a pervert and a nymphet).

Nabokov considered reality completely overrated. Besides, it doesn’t exist as such. There are as many realities as people and, yes, there is something like a truce/agreed-upon reality where we all meet and coexist. But it is also, in a practical sense, a mirage. A story. We need it and it is good that it’s there. But when I write, I write to escape it and I’ve always thought that writers like Burroughs or Vonnegut sound and feel realer—in terms of thought, structure, and plotting—than Flaubert or Tolstoy where everything seems to be oh so ordered and dramatically functional. Also, in my humble experience as a reader, writers tend to write worse when they became “compromised” and overtly “political.” Especially Latin American writers. In short: I have always been a great believer of the instruction Stanley Kubrick gave to his actors: “Real is good, interesting is better”.

Jeffrey Carl Mull

In your essay “Borges and Me and Me,” you mention the concept of invisibility often. Borges’ childhood desire to be invisible, and your own decision to pursue “the pious invisibility of the writer.” I find the concept resonating and haunting, sometimes in ways I can’t entirely put my finger on. Do you feel invisible? You who has poured so much of his skill, intelligence, and very personal life experiences into so many novels? What exactly is the pious invisibility of the Writer?

Rodrigo Fresán

I think you can be personally invisible or invisibly personal. I like to think that if everything works out, the books that you write are the way you can show your better side. The “pious invisibility of the writer” is, I guess, once you inevitably die, after living as a medium, and then finally and happily become the ghost of, if there’s luck, very alive books. To merge into them.

Jeffrey Carl Mull

Visibility has become a huge topic of conversation in contemporary literature, particularly in reference to groups previously marginalized by much of its history, such as women. On further inspection, a great many of the most ambitious works of western literature can seem dishearteningly two-dimensional in their depictions of women. Tropes such as “the object of obsession” or “the mad woman” are very common.

Both The Bottom of the Sky and The Invented Part utilize such characters, but truly flesh them out in such beautiful and fully realized ways, I would argue even going so far as to completely deconstruct the fundamental nature behind these tropes. When you started writing these novels, were you initially interested in the idea of deconstructing tropes or clichés, or did these characters come out of the natural process of writing empathetically?

Rodrigo Fresán

Well, in The Dreamed Part you’ll find out Penelope is not as crazy as she seemed or that, at least, there’s a very rational method to her madness. She also becomes a world-renowned novelist with millions of fans ready to die for her. But, yes, there’s a constant motif in all of my books since La velocidad de las cosas [The Speed of Things] (1998), not a recurring character, but a recurring entity/motif: the girl who falls into swimming pools. A kind of muse/sorceress/mystic lover. She Who Knows Everything or something like that.

The Big Bang for The Bottom of the Sky was the two boys + one girl equation (not a “mad woman” but men obsessed by her). The science fiction element came later. So the book functions as a valentine to the entire genre but also as a love letter to perfect love as the ultimate utopia. I’m very happily married so it’s not trouble at all for me to believe in that mystery. In terms of writing, I always thought that women are better equipped for the task. They’re the natural narrators and creators of lives. They’re also better liars—in the best and noblest sense of the word—than men, who probably lie more but with much less style.

Jeffrey Carl Mull

You say that your novels aren’t novels of science fiction, but novels with science fiction. The distinction you’ve drawn seems to be primarily that novels of science fiction tend to prioritize plot and ideas over style. What does style mean to you? Also, do you see value in things such as genres, categories, and literary traditions?

Rodrigo Fresán

There are a few sci-fi writers who are also stylists, in the sense that their ideas become their style: Dick, Ballard, Vonnegut, Lem. Nabokov claimed to hate sci-fi, but there are glimmers of it in his short story “Lance” and in Ada, and in his permanent preoccupation with the Afterlife as another dimension . . . And in Argentina we have Borges and Bioy Casares (the latter a huge influence on The Bottom of the Sky) who—like almost all canonical Argentine writers—have no problem at all navigating the fantastic and the strange.

To be clear, I must say that I cannot read writers who lack style or, at least, who lack the ambition—failed or not—to go out and look for a style. Allow me to please, quote from The Invented Part, in the magnificent Will Vanderhyden’s translation: “Something that John Banville said to him once, as they walked around the outside of Martello Tower in Sandycove, about how ‘style goes on ahead giving triumphal leaps while the plot follows along behind dragging its feet.’ Later he wondered whether it might not be possible for the style to go back a few steps and lovingly lift the plot up in its arms, as if it were a brilliant and complicated child, and turn it into something new, different: into a stylized plot, into the most well-plotted of styles. It was Nabokov, and he almost always agreed with Nabokov, who postulated that the best part of a writer’s biography didn’t pass through the record of his adventures, but through the history of his style. Style as an adventure and adventure as style, yes.”

9781940953786_be88a

FICTION
The Bottom of the Sky
By Rodrigo Fresán
Open Letter Books
Published April 3, 2018

Rodrigo Fresán is the author of nine novels, including Kensington Gardens, Mantra, and The Bottom of the Sky. His works incorporate many elements from science-fiction (Philip K. Dick in particular) alongside pop culture and literary references. According to Jonathan Lethem, “he’s a kaleidoscopic, open-hearted, shamelessly polymathic storyteller, the kind who brings a blast of oxygen into the room.”

Will Vanderhyden received an MA in Literary Translation from the University of Rochester. He has translated fiction by Carlos Labbé, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, Juan Marsé, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Rodrigo Fresán, and Elvio Gandolfo.

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