If some writers would kill for a blurb from a literary icon, then maybe we should keep an eye on Padgett Powell. Here’s how the old Southern master recently answered a question about his pick for the most exciting author writing today: “There is a young twisted fellow from Jacksonville Florida named Marcus Pactor. It’s the best I’ve seen in some time.”
Marcus Pactor‘s debut story collection, vs. Death Noises, won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. One review claimed that the book “cuts to the bone like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon.” Pactor received his MFA from Texas State University and currently teaches at the University of North Florida.
In this interview, Pactor discusses the development of narrative voice and the gap between our technologically-burdened world and the fiction that represents it.
In some ways, the story resembles a TV detective drama like CSI. It’s about a search for truth that leads to the haunting last sentence: “Somewhere in this archive he said what he needed me to know.” But this isn’t the only way the story could have been written. Because it involves a dead body, the story could have directly traced the events that led to the death. Why did you choose to focus on the search?
I never thought of writing more about the events leading up to Steve’s death. I’m never thinking about the big picture of my approach, really, except upon reflection. I’m thinking about the next word, the next sentence. But now you’ve got me thinking about the CSI formula. Henry James insulted a writer by saying that he had treated his subject in a most straightforward manner. I don’t much care for James’ fiction, but I think the idea is solid. Besides, Steve is dead. The current approach works (and we’re stipulating that it does work) because it focuses less on what happened to Steve and more on what is happening to the narrator.
The narrator is searching through the items left in Steve’s apartment, beginning with personal property but then moving to the ideas explored in his writing. As this shift occurs, the narrator’s voice begins to appear more clearly, even going so far as to address the reader: “You’ve read it before.” Did this shift appear naturally as you wrote the story, or did you discover it in revision?
Naturally. Most people think about voice first—if they don’t have that fully formed voice from the get-go, then they’re sunk. Writers hear this voice that makes them go. The comparison of writer to psychic medium is pretty common. I understand. In general, I agree with it. But in this piece the voice seems to emerge more and more clearly over time. In a way, it seems as though I began to find the voice as I wrote, and the story is almost like a record of that voice’s discovery. That’s one way to read it. The more I think about it, the more I like it.
But I think it’s also true that the emergence of the voice supplements the more clearly emerging relationship between Steve and the narrator. Even the verb “supplements” is inadequate. I think that’s especially true if you like the theory of discovery. In that case, the voice and its development are inseparable from that content.
“Emergence” may also be the wrong term. Another way to read it is that the narrator has been detached from this sibling relationship in all kinds of ways for a lengthy period of time. The voice mirrors that detachment. As the piece builds toward the climax, he feels more and more strongly his regret. In that case, too, the inseparability argument still holds.
Now, this is my third crack at this question. Until you asked, I hadn’t thought about how the voice in particular works in this piece. This means that I might be wrong about all the organic nature of the voice. But I think it’s true of any valuable story: the manner in which it is told is as important as what is told.
Most writers will, at some point, feel enslaved to the need to move characters through time and space. It’s why Virginia Woolf (I think) once complained that it took her all day to walk a character through a door. But you avoid this problem by focusing on what a character has left behind rather than the actual character. Did this choice of focus feel freeing? Did it open avenues for the narration that would be more challenging within a typical chronological focus?
I’m not entirely sure it was a choice. This is the way the story came out of me. If anything, it was a constraint, a good kind of constraint, the kind of constraint that forced me to create a character in a way that wasn’t comfortable. I couldn’t describe Steve physically. Instead, Steve generally had to be described in a doubly or even triply mediated fashion. The papers and property make up the first mediation. The narrator’s reading of that stuff make up the second mediation. The language is the third mediation.
The narrator writes that “we suffer from a surplus of trivial choices. This new suffering cannot be compared to the old. It cannot be expressed by time-honored methods, either.” Do you think this is true? Will each culture’s differences require differently shaped stories—not just different kinds of characters and events but different ways of telling?
The short answer is “yes.” I have been fool enough to mention Henry James. Now I invoke Saul Bellow. The suffering of the average member of modern civilization is different in kind and quality to the suffering anyone has suffered before. I’m not talking about rape and murder suffering here. I’m talking about the suffering imposed upon us by magic phones that do everything but wipe our noses. App upon app, channel upon channel of TV, etc. We have so many ways of wasting time. It is impossible to live the way people lived in the past. I’m okay with that. I certainly don’t want asbestos buildings child labor, segregation, and the rest. But they suffered from asbestos, child labor, segregation, etc. The average person had plenty more to cry about. Crying was an appropriate response to these impositions upon their health and freedom. It expressed a desire for better options. We have those options now. They are hard to deal with, and must be dealt with differently.
But how? The circumstances of our lives are changing must faster than we can change ourselves. Intellectually, I think it is easy to recognize that if the suffering is qualitatively different, then our responses to the suffering must also be qualitatively different. The problem is that we haven’t yet developed those responses. Who knows how long it will take to do so?
If you accept all that, it is easy to see that our literature must also be qualitatively different. It’s happening somewhat with the college and other independent presses, but not yet at the mass level I think it needs to happen. Consider that twenty years ago few houses had the internet, satellite TV, or cell phones. Our social relations have changed immensely since then, yet people write stories that hardly reflect the depth and scope of that change. Instead, Obama is named president rather than the first Bush. Characters text one another rather than call. This is just the Mad Libs approach to writing literature. It is, of course, popular, because most people really are conservative. In the midst of change, they hold on to what is comfortable. That explains, in part, the popularity of Best American Short Stories.
There is a significant percentage of people who seem to recognize that those stories, and the methods by which those stories are told, do not reveal anything new about the lives they are living, or maybe that the stories in that anthology can only capture a limited range of feeling and experience, and that range has not been tested or questioned in years. These people are searching around for a new thing. We could say that these people crave “experimental” literature but I hate that term. And, of course, a large amount of what is called experimental is also dreck.
The ritual of Bar Mitzvah plays a crucial role in the story. On one hand, it’s an ancient introduction of a boy into social and spiritual manhood. On the other hand, it’s a modern celebration of consumerism, with families (in America, at least) battling to have the most ostentatious party and gifts. If the shape of our stories reveals aspects of our culture, do you think this shift in the Bar Mitzvah reveals a change in the way modern (American?) Jews define and encounter God?
It might have occurred with the Jewish parents who came of age during or after World War II. My guess is that those parents found that a big celebration of achievement, replete with gifts, would help make their kids feel both American and secure. It might have been a statement about their own need for security and Americanness. It perhaps divided them from the old worship of God, though I’m guessing it was more a symptom of that division rather than an active element. A need to assimilate was definitely at work, but to me it seems the Bar Mitzvah is just a particular version of everybody’s general need for stuff, and our suffering of it.
Now, at the end, I can reveal my hypocrisy. My Bar Mitzvah was in 1988, and it was a present-fest. I got checks and savings bonds and fifty dollar bills. I received the now-traditional monogrammed pen. Three umbrellas! I can’t say I loved the actual stuff, but I loved to get it.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.