This Q+A was posted at some point last year, but with today being the official publication date of Seven Days in Rio, we figured we'd revisit it.
In 2011, we'll publish Francis Levy's second novel, Seven Days in Rio. In 2008, we published his first book, Erotomania: A Romance, which may have received the most amusing pull-quotes from reviews of any book we've published.
The Village Voice called Levy "Nicholson Baker and Mary Gaitskill's French-kissing cousin." Inland Empire Weekly said he was "our generation's DH Lawrence, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski rolled into one." And the Los Angeles Times said "Levy's excellent too, like Miller and Bukowski, on the mechanics and energy and animal filth of rumpy-pumpy." (Rumpy-pumpy?)
Here's a brief Q&A with Levy to mark the occasion:
Erotomania made some year-end best-of lists and got some over-the-moon postive reviews, but there were places, such as the Seattle Stranger, who "abandoned" reading the book. As an editor, I found the love/hate knee-jerk reaction to Erotomania both exceptionally rewarding and enjoyable -- what is the point of art if not to inspire and provoke. What was your reaction as a writer?
FL: I'm a naturally provocative person. It doesn't take much for me to provoke and there was a time in my career when the provocation actually produced it's desired effect which I suppose was to steel myself up against anticipated rejection. I for instance had written a series of letters from Jews to Herr Hitler asking to be excused from the Holocaust.The letters played upon all the elements of Jewish self hatred that were evident amongst the ambitious, assimilationist crowd I grew up around. People in my little fiction would plead to be excused from the Holocaust because they didn't look or act like the other Jews. The piece by the way was called "Passive Resistance," a title that also got me into trouble since that mode of social protest was tied to folks like Gandhi and Martin Luther King who most educated readers idolize. "Passive Resistance" was appreciated by some, but reviled by others and managed to create the effect someone has when they walk into a room after soiling themselves, even though it never actually got published.
Then I wrote another parody "Joseph Mengele:Man of Science" and yet another one in which Hitler is in a rehab for recovering dictators and tells his story, how he took the Sudetenland, but it was not enough. He was portayed like a sexual compulsive who is addicted to conquests. In those years, I was actually enraged and the rage was barely sublimated so the net effect was to give the reader material they found hard to digest. Mind you others like Phillip Roth and Wally Shawn had dealt satirically with subjects like Jewish self hatred and facism. It's the same material that Mel Brook's dealt with in the original movie of The Producers with its infamous number "Springtime for Hitler."
Provocation is really the comic form of tragedy, or tragic comedy. Look Erotomania is a tragi-comedy. James and Monica exemplify evolution on an ontogenic basis. They start as animals and the overly developed cerebral cortex gets in the way. The higher brain activities cause them to lose all the fun. The only problem is they wouldn't have realized they were not having fun unless they had consciousness, nor would they have had the pleasure of getting to know each other and getting to experience other forms of enjoyments such as mimesis, such as art, such as food. Freud wrote about this in Civilization and Its Discontents. I don't know why that book is not a perpetual bestseller. It should be in the drawer of every motel room like the Gideon Bible once was, giving the lonely traveler a little bit of gospel and the solace of knowing why he is so torn.
In a nutshell, Erotomania wasn't provocative because of the sex, though there was almost as much of it in the book as there is in life. It was provocative because of its rather upsetting message, which is again Freud's message i.e. that in the course of being human and socializing, man must forego certain things. Instinct will become compromised by the inhibitions that accompany consciousness. The book was also upsetting because my couple, who I really fell in love with myself, eventually embark upon a project which causes them to explode. Here again, hyperbole was simply underlining a truth: that we all separate and individuate only to be reunited again with common matter in death. My feeling is that some people simply don't want to read these things. It's like Spielberg's A.I. A lot of filmgoers didn't like the movie, but not because it was a bad movie. Rather the movie said something that was upsetting in the case of A.I. that the species could perpetuate itself, consciousness could exist without the body.
On the surface level, Erotomania was the arc of a couple as they perfect their relationship, is Seven Days in Rio the story of a man searching for the perfect relationship . . . with a prostitute?
FL: Not really. In essence Seven Days is about a sex tourist who gets waylaid at a psychoanalytic convention. It's not an autobiographical novel in any sense of the word. To begin with, I have never been to Rio, but it's far more more personal in a poetic way than Erotomania was. In essence I'm the sex tourist who got waylaid at the psychoanalytic convention, though to bookend I have never been to a psychoanalytic convention either.
However basically in some harum scarum way Seven Days tells my story. I recently published a piece about my own analysis in American Imago, a scholarly journal founded by Freud and Hanns Sachs in l939. It's called "Psychoanalysis: The Patient's Cure" and it tells the story of my own analysis. In one of the early parts of the piece I describe how I was beaten up outside a bottomless bar called Diamond Lil's which was on Canal near White Street in the 70's. I don't know what caused me to get worked over by the bouncers. I must have done something provocative to get back to the subject of the kind of provocation that doesn't delight audiences. For instance back in those days I had the habit of getting blind drunk and doing things like pulling on a fellow nudie bar aficionado's beard. People don't like that kind of provocation, but I didn't know that. I had to be told, in fact, that this was very naughty, very bad and that it would provoke the ire of those to whom it was done. That same night I went down the street to a famously violent Punk Rock place called the Mudd Club where women and I suppose some men were routinely raped in the bathroom. I had been knocked out during the beating and when I got up my arm was hanging out of its socket, but I thought "this is pretty cool" and proceeded on my merry way, drinking and using my dangling limb as a conversation piece with bug-eyed women blasted out of their minds on who knows what. In any case, the incident was one of many in which I was playing around with my own death. My self undoing had reached a certain pitch were it became apparent that I might truly succeed in having an ending like that of some of my idols, from Jackson Pollock who rammed his car into a tree, to Janice Joplin and Sid Vicious and in a more literary vein, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath. I had to really think about it at the time: did I want to live or die?
In the Myth of Sisyphus Camus says this is the only real philosophical question, but this wasn't intellectual matter for me. At the time, I simply hated myself and every night I went out on the town in the pursuit of so-called pleasure, I had yet one more opportunity to tempt fate. That's the odd thing about the thing that people call pleasure. Often what people call pleasure or ecstasy masks the search for oblivion. Epicurus is a philosopher whose name is often associated with pleasure, but he believed in the golden mean. Pleasure for him was not indulgance in excess, but a realization of limitation. These are some of the themes are set out to explore in Seven Days.
Seven Days in Rio begins with an amusing disclaimer of sorts: "None of the characters in this novel are real, nor are the places or psychoanalytic movements, even though the name Rio may conjure the real city of Rio de Janeiro. Lacanian analysis as described in the novel bears no resemblance to the branch of psychoanalytic practice initiated by the French analyst Jacques Lacan. Even the duration of time as stated in the title bears little resemblance to what is commonly known as seven days. So don't start writing irate letters to my blog correcting this or that or asking for refunds."
FL: Kafka wrote a novel called Amerika, though he never visited America. I was studying romantic French literature of the l9th Century like Chateaubriand's Atala. I started to read certain kinds of novels based on the writer's imagination of places they only partially knew. I suppose the advent of the New World inspired much fantasy. Being a person who baths in a world of sexual imagery (like most human beings, even if they might not always realize it or want to realize it), I am always imagining my Erewhon, my Utopia, both in terms of sex and its cousin therapy. I have no illusions about Rio or Bangkok or anything. In fact, after all these years of living what many people might called a hum drum existence (being a father and husband and parenthetically loving these activities), who at the same time conjures up altenative universes (I hope none of the family of man takes offense at my claiming that this is also being a trait of the species), I think I might commit suicide were I to confront the banality of pleasure.
The allusion to Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil," the famous phrase she used to describe Eichman is not coincidental and in part explains the disclaimer at the beginning of the novel. Were I to journey to a sexual and/or therapeutic paradise where I could finally meet a beautiful analyst who consented to sleep with me I would in all likelihood be disappointed. It's much better to write about these things. Then I'm free to come and go as I please with minimum destruction to other human beings.
You recently published a very thoughtful and reflective piece in American Imago on your relationship with your own psychoanalyst. How has psychoanalysis informed and furthered your fiction writing?
FL: I have already inadvertently answered this, but let me approach it from another angle which is to say the general question of the inner life. Analysis places a great amount of importance on the inner world. This may sound like a simple idea, but think about it. Most people go into therapy to solve a problem. Some men for instance go into therapy because they are having problems with sex; they have performance anxiety which leads to erectile dysfunction, in lay terms not getting it up. This is a serious matter for a man. I have a feeling that this is what Goethe's Faust is all about. Men will do anything for knowledge about how to solve this difficulty, even going so far as making a Mephistolean bargain.
Okay, I'm being facetious, before the lynch mob of comp lit scholars comes after me, I'm only kidding (not!). In contradistinction to this the analytic enterprise, looks at the whole human character. It's not that some symptoms aren't treated, rather it's a cart and horse matter. Instincts and desires are a part of the humanity of the individual. The idea is that something is getting in the way and that something becomes the subject of the analysis. In the course of this, you embark on a kind of inner life party. I was already fairly practiced in doing emotional striptease before I got into analysis, but the analysis opened up a rich territory which became my palette and eventually the raw stripping, in which I would get attention by exhibitionistically revealing everything, got turned into a ballet, then a piece of modern dance, then a tableau vivant a la Robert Wilson and then novels like Erotomania and Seven Days. I also started to produce a blog called The Screaming Pope. I've also written over 2000 poems, numerous humor pieces and short stories. I don't know if my analyst is totally aware of it, but all his years of treatment created a Frankenstein.
As co-director of the Philoctetes Center for the Multidisciplinary Study of Imagination, you come into contact with some of the most relevent thinkers of our time -- what are some of your memorable moments from the Center?
FL: I'm a bit of an intellectual groupie. I like all kinds of weird thinkers known and unknown. I've become friends with several writers published by Two Dollar Radio. Larry Shainberg, the author of Crust, and the classic Ambivalent Zen recently joined a panel on religious extremism called "The Politics of Ecstasy." Barbara Browning, whose The Correspondence Artist, you are publishing this year, was on the David Shields panel "The Lure and Blur of the Real" and that's an example of the the kind of thing that thrills me. The fine line between reality and fiction was what Shields was writing about and along comes Barbara Browning whose fictional characters (are they fiction?) engage in dialogues with real people on line and elsewhere. We had touched on something in the zeitgeist and it was a very exciting and contentious too. Shields and Rick Moody really fenced off on the issue of fiction qua fiction as opposed to reality as fiction or fiction as reality. John Cameron Mitchell who directed one of my favorite movies, Short Bus, was also on that panel.
Okay now I'm going to behave like the kind of asshole I hate. We had Turturro and Edward Albee talking about Beckett. We had Nicholson Baker and Judith Thurman on biography and autobiography. We had Dan Rather on civil wars in Afghanistan and Bosnia. We had the astrophysicist Brian Greene talking to the Harvard esthetician Elain Scarry about math and beauty. We had Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz on Dylan, the Nobel prize winning Neuroscientist Gerry Edelman talking about disenchantment in a panel on norms, Phillip Pearstein, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith. The list goes on. I'm proud of it so fuck me if I'm namedropping. Fuck me, fuck everyone. How's that for provocation?
Here's the opening to Seven Days in Rio:
"I went down to the Copacabana on my first night in Rio. I was told that most of the women were prostitutes who would gladly sleep with me for a hundred American dollars. I saw a sexy looking woman wearing high heels and an abbreviated bikini and decided that there was no sense in discriminating, since all the women were going to turn out to be whores and, from what I’d heard about the lovemaking habits of Brazilians, one would be as talented as the next. I pursed my lips and made purring sounds like a pussycat to get the idea across, but the woman didn’t seem to notice me, although I was wearing a seersucker suit from the Brooks Brothers 346 collection. There aren’t too many men, or women, wearing Brooks Brothers suits (or any suits for that matter) down by the Copacabana, and I would have thought I stood out from the crowd.
"I have always found communication between myself and other human beings to be a problem, and often worry that I haven’t succeeded with women where I otherwise might because my words get caught between my teeth. So I just held out my hand to her as she waited for the traffic light to change. “I’m Kenny,” I said. “I have a big dick. Do you understand Anglais? I am new to your country and I wanted to introduce myself while also initiating myself into your highly permissive sexual culture. I will put my cards on the table. I’d be glad to engage you to perform sexual acts on me for a fee.”"