An Interview with Aden Bell
by Miles Cimerman
Five years ago, at the age of 23, Aden Bell published his first novel, City Maps, to a near universal chorus of shrugs and dismissals. It was 2004 and the world had better things to worry about than the suburban malaise of a writer barely old enough to drink. Despite being essentially a work of social realism, City Maps failed to connect with the mainstream literary zeitgeist; a collection of elliptical short stories set in an unnamed Anywhere, USA with a cast of self-conscious misfits and achingly normal twenty-somethings, the book was easily disregarded as young-author angst and a half-assed attempt to imitate the modern life minuets of Raymond Carver and combine them with the absurdity of Kafka (with a little Borges style meta-fiction thrown in just to be safe). Truthfully, few critics even paid enough attention to the collection of short stories to say that much about it. Those who did, like William Atticus, the literary critic for Seattle's Metric Time, did not tear the book into shreds but instead doomed Mr. Bell with words such as "competent," "mediocre," and "stylistically safe." Atticus did praise Bell's ability to, "create an entirely believable alternate suburbia, complete with trashy novels, ignored indie films, canceled televisions shows, bad bands, urban legends, and forgotten histories."
Alas, initial critical reception (or lack thereof) is not everything and Bell slowly began garnering a cult following. In part due to his unorthodox book signing tour, Bell soon became a media "provocateur" and the critics came out of the woodwork, this time to either praise Bell as a 21st century Rimbaud or an American exurb Dadaist with the soul of a Romantic now lavishing the same dreamy attention on telephone poles and parking lots those 19th century writers did on streams and steam mills, or they lambasted him as a literary one-hit-wonder, a punk writer whose desire for the attention of the hip and fashionable greatly overshadowed, and here was the word again, his mediocre writing.
Of course, Bell has since proven the naysayers wrong, though his work has become increasingly experimental and his methods of publication have largely eschewed the major, and sometimes even the minor, publishing houses. His second novel, written under his frequently used pseudonym, "Bryan Edenfield," is titled Of Ancestors and Animals: an imaginary memoir and was self-published and self-distributed. Now, as the official spokesman for the enigmatic Wordless Dictionary Society, Bell has quite possibly found his niche. He has been published, under various monikers, in such diverse periodicals as Glimmer Train, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Q, Rosebud, Metric Time, The New Yorker, Imaginary Science, Tin House, Babel Inc., Write This and Playboy.
From February 13th to the 23rd of 2009, I conducted an interview over email and telephone with Mr. Bell; we discussed his writings, his latest gig as the official voice of one of the strangest contemporary (anti?) literary movements, and about fiction, art, and life in general. What follows are highlights from that interview, including in depth discussions about a few of Mr. Bell's works. Also, along with excerpts from his first two novels, published here for the first time is an excerpt from Bell's work-in-progress tentatively titled The Blossom St. Museum of Moss. Rather than bore you with the email and telephone pleasantries that started our conversations, I will skip right to the meat of the conversation.
Cimerman: Looking back at City Maps, it's initial lukewarm reception, the following frenzy and your, what some thought would be short-lived, cultish fame, what do you think? Who was right: the people who hated you, the people who loved you, or the people who really didn't care either way?
Bell: Well, of course I'm going to say the people who didn't care either way. But, in order to shed my reputation for being a "difficult" interview, I will give a more nuanced answer. I risk being unpopular; nuance could never be popular with any sort of majority as it involves making subtle distinctions and comparisons between things people don't want to be compared, things people think are intrinsically opposed, diametrically so, most likely, things ingrained in people as being opposites or polarities. Nuance involves comparing apples and oranges, though that's a bad cliche or idiom to use, as apples and oranges have a lot in common. But this isn't about apples and oranges or nuance. Looking back I think City Maps is a fairly mediocre book, though its better than Of Ancestors and Animals in some ways and worse in others. Being a collection of short stories, interconnected short stories but still short stories meant to stand on their own, the book is spotty. Some of the short stories I still like; some are a bit of an embarrassment. But I do think, for the most part, the assessment of my behavior was pretty accurate. I acted like a fool in order to get attention for the book; it worked, so I think it was a good idea, but I may have taken it a little far. Certainly, I stayed in character longer than necessary. I wrote City Maps under my name, Aden Bell, and I was also a character in the book, but the character in the book, Aden, is different from the character who wrote the book, Aden Bell, who is likewise different from me, the real person, Aden Bell. Unfortunately, the Aden Bell that went on a book signing tour to promote City Maps was the Aden Bell who wrote the book, a much more volatile person than I am. I would say I'm more similar to the Aden inside of the book, who is quite quiet and meek and a bit of a loner, though he does have his moments of craziness, he's sort of above it all, not in a superior way, he's simply aloof, not quite connected with what's going on no matter how invested he seems to be. I think I'm more like that than the person who went on that book signing tour. L'enfant terrible. It's a fun role to play but you end up pissing a lot of people off that you might actually like and want to, you know, continue some sort of relationship with, professionally. I burned a lot of bridges making a name for myself, but I think it was worth it since I wouldn't have had those bridges to burn if I didn't do what I did in the first place. Maybe it's a bit of a catch-22. No matter, I went about things the way I wanted and I'm happy with how it all turned out. I don't hate the book. I would never write anything like it now, but I don't hate it.
Cimerman: What stories, or even moments of stories, stand out for you from City Maps?
Bell: I'm still very fond of "Alice." That was the first one I wrote, and I wrote it when I was twenty and I still think I did something with it that I have difficulty doing now, nearly ten years older. I haven't read it in a while, so this is all from memory, but I like how the story lines up so well, how there's so much beneath the surface that I didn't consciously intend to be there yet I think, on some level, it was necessary that the story be written that way. Without sounding overly mystical, I do think a writer is not fully conscious of that which drives him or her to write and thus he or she is not fully aware of exactly what the story is about or what it's supposed to, as they say, "mean." I find "Alice" to be a remarkably layered story and it's all the better because I wasn't doing it consciously, so it doesn't come with those pit stains of effort when you can just tell an author is trying to impress you. It's a simple story of a girl who decides to invent her own identity, she goes to a party, she meets a guy, she goes and gets food with him, almost goes home with him, but decides not to at the last moment and walks away. That's really all that happens. But there are little strange moments. I initially wrote the story as if it took place in the future; not a far-fetched future, just maybe a decade into the future. What happened, though, was that the story simply seemed like it took place in the present, but from a skewed perspective. So you have these odd descriptions of freeways and descriptions of say, someone pumping gas as if that were an unusual act.
Cimerman: Can you analyze your own story a bit? There's a moment, and I'm also going by memory, in which the title character, Alice, cradles a garden gnome like a baby and this is positioned close to the metaphoric description of the party, relating it to the baby Jesus and the Inn. Alice is essentially maternal here, she's surrounded by maternal, feminine imagery. But she abandons this gnome and the party and she abandons Aden, the guy she meets at the party, opting to instead go off on her own. Some have seen a feminist message here. Is this one of those layers that happened by accident?
Bell: Certainly. As many times as I've been accused of being a feminist I've been accused of being a misogynist. But I did catch that in my own reading after I had already written it and edited about a dozen times. I don't think I can really analyze my own story though and I don't think an author should. I don't think it's my place because people will feel that my word is final because I'm the author and obviously I know what I was trying to accomplish in my own writing. I was twenty; I didn't know what I was trying to accomplish in any facet of my life. This isn't to say that anyone's view is accurate; I'm not supporting the kind of subjectivity that says that anything that any person gets out of a work is ultimately the correct thing to get out of it. I'm not saying one interpretation is as good as the next. I think a person should be able to defend his or her interpretation; it should make sense, a kind of sense anyway, and it should feel right to anyone else who's read the story. It should at least feel partially right. And that feminist interpretation does feel partially right. So did one involving "Alice," being an exploration of Heidegger's notion of authenticity. I read that somewhere. I can see that. I don't really understand Heidegger, but I can see it. It's an interesting kind of authenticity, as Alice is essentially lying about everything, yet she couldn't be more emotionally honest. She's quietly baring her soul, even if no-one's really noticing, though I think Aden does a bit, and even if she's making it up, she's attempting to be as human and honest and caring as she possibly can be. It's a difficult position for her. And she's also truly trying to make others do the same. She's trying, and mostly failing, to pull Aden out of awkward chit-chat and toward something meaningful. This is one way to look at things. Of course, there is the meta-fiction angle. Alice is the author of her own life. As writers make up stories and potentially make up their own stories by writing things in the first person, Alice is authoring her own life. And, just as fiction, which is a lie, can reveal a greater truth, Alice's lies reveal greater truths about herself, and she knows this and that is why she is lying. But I feel silly and narcissistic writing so many wonderful things about my own story. I'm not going to do it anymore.
Of course, I admire other works in City Maps as well. The title story, at least the first third of it, I think is pretty well written. I admire "A Biography of Mundane Objects," and think it may be the most structurally mature work in the book. I think "The Art of Conversation" has some good moments, and while it's structurally sloppy, I think "Finding the Apocalypse," has some of the most heart-breaking writing of the entire novel. Maybe it's only heart-breaking to me because I wrote it; it has certain real life associations for me. I think it's pretty well known that Alice is based on a real person and that the Aden in the story is me. The fictional Alice sort of took on a life of her own, as did the fictional Aden, and it's funny how that sort of thing can happen. I blurred all of those lines, I think, quite a bit with Of Ancestors and Animals. I suppose it's no use pretending like I didn't write that. I thought the trick would work for a while. Nonetheless, I have some pretty strong emotional reactions to some of the stories in City Maps because they follow the truth of the situation pretty accurately. Of Ancestors and Animals doesn't, for me, because it wasn't written by me, it was written by someone else, someone with a different, less personal view on my life. This is a difficult thing to explain and I think people think I'm trying to pretend I'm schizophrenic. But I abhor autobiographical fiction and the memoir, so I don't want anything I write to be that, though it would be a lie to say that I'm not writing about my life, in one way or another. There are, of course, numerous facets to our lives, and it starts as an interesting exercise, trying to, say, imagine your life from a different person's point of view, or imagine your life if it wasn't yours, or if it some how ended differently, if it went a different direction at some point. And what if that person, that partial doppelganger, ended up being a real person. What if we met. I suppose that's partially what my current project, one of my current projects, is: The Blossom St. Museum of Moss. We live our lives coming up with various versions of our selves, and as a writer, though I hate to call myself that, I've come up with a lot of various versions of myself. But everyone does it to some extent, with social networking sites, with the way we behave, say, at work versus the way we behave with our close friends versus the way we behave with strangers versus the way we behave around our family. We're different people, in some subtle way, in all of those situations, as if our identity weren't at all up to us and we were not autonomous but become different people in different situations as the situation itself dictates; we just become a part of this machine: the family machine, the work machine, the machine of people going about on a city street, the bus-ride machine, the friend machine.
Cimerman: Of Ancestors and Animals seemed to deal with that, the dissolution of identity or the fragmentation of identity. Were you trying to explicate that, the various modes of being a supposed individual, with that book?
Bell: I don't know if I was trying to explicate anything; I dislike the idea that authors are philosophers trying to make a metaphysical point. I'd like to think we're better than that, but maybe we're worse, maybe at our most honest, all authors would just admit we're nothing but a bunch of charlatans and hacks and liars. I like that idea. More optimistically, I'd say I'm just trying to tell a story, but I do have certain hang-ups, what might be called philosophical inclinations or tendencies, so I'm sure that's in the book. I know it is. You have characters actually dissolving, not in water, but fragmenting I suppose is a better word. Characters come a part and turn into, say, a flock of starlings or a colony of ants. You have different characters with the same name who seem to be very similar, and of course that isn't coincidental. But I can't really say what it means.
Cimerman: Let's go back to City Maps for a moment. I'd like us to look an excerpt from one of the stories and perhaps we can discuss it.
An Excerpt from "Finding the Apocalypse"
The monsters are more human than we are...
...and the smoke reminded me of her. I saw her ghost as it curled through the air, bending around the lamppost, moving towards the window, floating around the ceiling fan. I saw her standing in the blue doorway, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, her body in silhouette from the open window in the living room and the orange glow from the street lights. She was looking at me sleeping in bed, though I was actually quite awake, looking right back at her through my tangled eyelashes and barely open eyelids. Maybe she knew I was looking at her. Maybe I was looking at her, thinking she had no idea I was doing so, and she was looking at me thinking I had no idea she was doing so. But we both knew.
She left and I wondered if she would ever come back. She had left and come back before. I remembered that cold night; I was supposed to meet Jenny at a concert. Instead I met her, Alice. Her name meant truth. My name meant “the fiery one,” or something like that. I thought about this as I stared at the smoke rising up from the pipe, floating out of the mouths of my two roommates. A fiery one would tear out their teeth. I stood there and said nothing. I left the apartment. I spent as little time there as possible. During the day, I went to school. At night, I worked, and if I didn’t work, I wandered. I went to Meg’s Cafe with Jenny, I went to the movies with Jeff and Marcie. My house was not my home; my home was somewhere in the barren landscape of freeways, parking lots, gas stations, and strip-malls. My home was the empty space in between all of those things. But now there was a small part of her in my apartment. I could see her on my bed, in my hallway, in my bathroom, on the floor sitting next to me. I could see her everywhere. She haunted me.
In one of those empty spaces, I found the book. Titled Introduction to Tantra, I picked it up in the dingy bathroom of a 24 hour gas station convenient store. Earlier, I stood next to Alice in those glowing linoleum aisles. I bought her a hot dog. I realized, as I retraced our steps past the beer bottles and soda cans, that her ghost was not the only thing following me. The monsters were out, the demons, the bloodsucking phantoms that could never possibly exist. They crawled along the streets; they lurked in the abysmal shadows of night. Their beady little eyes glinted and stared. I couldn’t shake them. Nothing could hide until the sun came up. I tried to ignore them but they were always there, staring right at me, forcing me to pay attention, forcing me to recognize that they were real. Very few people recognized that. In the hundreds of times I had walked those streets, I had never noticed. My city was haunted. It was the city of the future.
Alice told me that the apocalypse was coming. It happened as we spoke, as we walked and breathed and lived our lives. And we were surviving. Moment by moment, we survived some fringe manifestation of the end of the world. But it wasn’t the real end. The real end was just around the corner. She wanted to find it. It was here. The end of the world, that thing we always seem to push to the future, was here. We were living in the future.
I thought about this as I pantomimed the movements of our first meeting. A thin layer of water shimmered on the cracked asphalt. It had rained. It would rain some more. The lampposts marked the way, the cars hummed in the distance, and sometimes one would drive by, sleek and streamlined and ready to fly. A traffic light became yellow. It turned red. Droplets of water sprinkled down from the sky. This was the future. The monsters witnessed it with me. They were coming out for the end. I could feel it. Alice was right. She wanted front row seats while the dregs and I wandered around looking helpless and gnawing on flesh. I have gnawed on human flesh. I have swam in rivers of bile. I have participated in this disgusting orgy we call life. I am Aden the fiery one. I will go back to that apartment and gouge out their eyes, tear out their teeth, throw them through the window. But no. There is no reason to do that. I will simply help bring about the end of the world.
I looked inside the book as creatures with red eyes and claws slithered up the walls and hissed at me, with me, to me. On the title page, a letter read, “You are invited. 21 Harvard Blvd. We are the end. Here is a map.” The map started at the gas station. It wound its way through the town, through alleyways and people’s backyards, past dumpsters and stop-signs. It didn’t include a single road name or a single major landmark.
The walls rattled with the movement of otherworldly beasts. Alice’s ghost was in the convenient store, stealing beer and candy bars. I left the bathroom to join her only to see that she had moved on. I thought of other places we had been together in my three days of knowing her. I still had the book in my hands. Introduction to Tantra. My life was about to fall apart.
Ghosts walked through me. I followed them from place to place. There she was, sitting on a swing in a plastic playground near my apartment. There I was right next to her, trying to pretend I believed in her fake optimism. We could survive, but not forever.
I had maps to follow. I stumbled into the playground as the rain lightened. There was no sand, only the soft, black rubbery ground that complimented the red, blue, and yellow plastic equipment. I leaned up against a slide and stared at the ghost of Alice sitting on a swing, barely moving, barely speaking, one letter away from being alive.
I saw the front of the house, the house where I was supposed to meet Jenny and where I met Alice, the house where the concert was held, the house where three dozen rancid people with dyed hair and nose rings crammed together to jump up and down, push each other, and listen to a band rave on about the evils of society. The government stole our souls. No. My soul was mine and I was in the slow and steady process of destroying it. Those monsters will be unleashed. They shall not stay hidden.
I walked through the desolate parking lot of Meg’s Cafe. The lights were on inside, but the place was closed, and I saw Amy the waitress moping. Her blond hair was hanging over her eyes. A pointy eared, wide eyed gremlin was peering over her shoulder, fluttering about with little wings. Alice was sitting in one of the booths, playing with a folded straw. I found it odd that she did this. Jenny did the same thing. Where was Jenny? She hadn’t met me at the house concert. I hadn’t talked to her in days. Thoughts of her couldn’t stay in my head for very long. They immediately went back to Alice; she left the restaurant and walked away.
“This is sort of my place,” I had said to her.
“So you have a place. Something about that is good and comforting. I had a place where I was from before I came here. Food wasn’t as good as this though.”
“What will we do?”
“Not a big deal. Just food. I’m not the biggest fan of food. I’d stop eating it if I could. Maybe I’ll just starve myself. Ha. I am, right now, surviving the potentiality of me starving myself.”
“You may not survive it forever. And then there’s the salmonella.”
”And E. Coli. I’m a big fan of E. Coli. Ra ra, go team E. Coli.”
I laughed. She laughed. It didn’t last forever.
“You haven’t told me exactly why you’re here.”
“I know. Isn’t that funny?”
“Are you going to?”
“Doubtful,” she smiled. Her smile caused the universe to collapse.
“If you tell me where you come from, I’ll tell you where I’m never going.”
“Well, that doesn’t seem fair at all.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you anything you want.”
“Deepest darkest secret?”
I didn’t answer immediately. “Sure. My deepest, darkest secret isn’t so bad.” I felt like sliding a blade over my arms. She would stop the bleeding.
“You don’t have to. I’ll just tell you where I’m from. Not now though. Later. Let’s talk about something else for now.”
We did. We talked about hot dogs. We talked about the end of the world. We talked about how much we hated baseball and the old dead and gone high school days. She told me about stealing books from libraries and smoking cigarettes in her garage, about swimming in the river and inventing new constellations in the sky. She told me how liberating it was to live in the future.
“It’s frustrating, you know, waiting for it. The future.”
“Kind of. But it’s sort of nice. I mean, it gets me in a pretty good mood when I’m sitting around making plans for the brilliant new things I will do in the near future. I try not to think about the fact that when it actually roles around, it’ll be about as boring as everything is now.”
“That’s exactly the problem. We make all these plans to bring about this grand future, and all they do is manufacture a slightly altered version of what seems like a permanent present. We never arrive at that future we plan for ourselves, it’s always out of reach. It’s frustrating, down right depressing, you know. But it’s right here,” again, she smiled, continents crumbled, “the end.”
“I’m not sure I grasp this whole concept, Alice.”
“Me either. I’m just making it up.”
“What do you study in school? You haven’t told me that, Mr. Aden. Or your last name.”
“I study depressing useless things that I’d rather not talk about right now. Especially when the world’s so bright and cheery.” It was pouring outside. Maybe it wouldn’t stop.
“And your last name?”
“I don’t know your last name.”
“That’s because I don’t have one. I’m a one-named vixen. I’m not going to vixenify you though, no need to worry about that, boyo. I’m a pop diva. I only need one name.”
”Yeah, me too.”
“You’re a pop diva.”
”Would you expect any less?”
She let out a wonderful little laugh, “No I would not. I would expect you to be fiery and in charge and full of pop diva pep.”
“That’s me, a lightning bolt. Thousands of ounces of fun per second.”
“You are fun.”
“I said I was.”
“Yeah, but...you didn’t mean it. You should mean it though. I think you should mean a lot more of the things you say about yourself. Take away the sarcasm and you’d be right about everything.”
"Even when I say that the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is the parking lot outside this window.”
“If you don’t mean that, I wouldn’t know what to think of you.”
“I do mean it.” The rain splattered down on the nearly empty parking lot, the falling water pushed around a soda can and flattened a plastic bag, and a person with an umbrella walked through it, alone, hunched over, formless in a trench-coat. “It’s the second most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes. The second. I’m big into lists.”
“Yeah. Me too.... I used to make lists of different ways to kill my brother when I was a kid. Of course it was a joke. My brother was pretty swell. But they were funny lists. Sometimes he’d help with them. I’d go up to him and ask him a way that he’d hate to die and I’d put it on the list. Some I just made up. I often had it so that I would put a gun to his head and force him to chop off his own dick and eat it or I’d blow his brains out, make those silly eyebrows of his go flying off into space. Did I ever tell you the thing he did with his eyebrows?”
“Yeah, you did. He made them float.”
“Well, no, he...”
“Yeah, I was just kidding, I know.”
“But anyway, after he ate his own dick I’d shoot him in the head anyway. Funny, huh?”
“Yes. I know if I was forced to eat my penis, I’d be laughing all the way to the circus.”
“Penis, ha. The circus. Exciting.”
“Seems like the place to go when you’re laughing.”
“Especially with a cock in your mouth.”
“I could join the freak show. They'd call me Cockmouth Boy.”
“Well, you’re not a boy any more.”
“I hardly feel like an adult.”
“I know, isn’t that stupid. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like one. And at the same time, I think I’ve felt like one at really young ages. I mean, certain circumstances...you know...moments of forced adulthood....”
“I suppose.” I tried to think of a subtle way to get her to tell me more but she changed the subject.
“You ever think you want to be in a rock band?”
“What? Not really.”
“Sometimes I do. I think it’d be neat to sing. I know it’s stupid, every 20 year old wants to start a band, play the guitar, get all the chicks.”
“You want to get all the chicks?”
“We all should broaden our horizons, no? Tell you what, tomorrow, you go out and butt-fuck a guy and I’ll go have some lesbian sex.”
“Um, no, I don’t think I’ll be doing that.”
“Why not? It’ll be fun. Check that off your to-do list.”
“It’s not on my to-do list.”
“Do you have a to-do list?”
“At the moment...not right now.”
Amy saw me staring, reliving the conversation. The rain, again, poured from some churning heaven above. The parking lot was empty. I had no umbrella, but I thought the man I had seen, hunched and formless, was the ghost of me, from the future, a sneak preview of things to come. Time was overlapping itself.
Amy’s words covered Alice’s. “We all should have a to-do list.”
”Jesus, Aden, what are you doing out there?”
I spoke in the most casual voice I could find. “Just watching out for monsters.” They lurked all around. They stayed out of the parking, sacred ground for the near dead and dying. “I want to be with the near dead and the dying.”
“What was that?” Amy asked.
“Do you have a napkin?”
She let me in. A few other people with monsters over their shoulders were there, cleaning, listening to bad heavy metal, closing up shop and talking about what they were going to do next weekend. They didn’t mind me. I borrowed a pen from Amy, the waitress with the blond hair who always served Jenny and I, and wrote my to-do list on a napkin. The book was next to my leg, the pages warped from the rain. The message inside remained safe and untouched.
“If I never see you again after tonight, I hope this parking lot stays here forever,” Alice said as cars sped by in the rain.
“Why would you never see me again?”
I felt the napkin in my pocket. I shoved it there as I left Meg’s Cafe, Amy waving goodbye, curious as to why I couldn’t answer questions about Jenny, worried that I was sloshing through the cold damp night. I stood in the middle of the lot for a second. The demons were at its borders, waiting for me to join them, waiting for me to let them in. Alice’s ghost came back and faded away. I looked at the map in the book again. The rain disappeared and I saw the moon in the sky. It wouldn’t be there forever. I heard the hum of distant traffic, an airplane, droplets falling off of telephone poles. I heard Alice’s voice, an echo from yesterday, the day before, someday...
“Here’s it all in a nutshell, all the thoughts that have been thumping around in my stupid little head, here’s all of it,” she said to me, lying next to me on my bed, the rain still hitting the roof, the moon still hiding, the demons not yet out to stalk the streets, the world not yet falling apart but preparing to, and me not yet taking part in that apocalypse she so desperately was searching for.
“I am making all of this up and I don’t know what it means, and I would love it if someone would just make sense out of all of it for me, but here’s what I’m thinking.”
“In a nutshell?”
“Yes, in a nutshell. I am searching for the end of the world. I am trying to find the apocalypse. But it’s here, you know, somehow and someway, it’s here, I just have to do something to see it. I have to see it. And I don’t know what I mean by this. Obviously the world isn’t ending. It’s all a big joke. We’ll all be here tomorrow, we’ll be here the next day, we’ll probably be here years from now. But let’s pretend not. Let’s pretend this is it and anything after this is after time. We’re technically gone but sort of still here, I’m sure religions have a way of dealing with this, we’re lost and useless and I don’t know. I’m rambling. But right now we’re on the cusp of survival, you know. I will survive, la-la-la, I will survive. But I don’t want to. I want it all to just stop, but I don’t want it to stop. I want it to be at the point where it’s about to stop, and I want to see it and I want to know what is happening while no one else does. I want to watch it. Aden, am I making any sense. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just...”
“Just keep going.”
“Um. Okay. Yeah. It doesn’t make sense though. I tell you, like, fifty seconds after I meet you, and I don’t even know you now by some sort of technical usage of the word ‘know’, like it takes an objectively long amount of time, but I think I know you and I think you know me and I think I could tell you anything, even if I was just making it up. And you say beautiful things and don’t even realize it. You act so meek, like nothing you say or do matters, like the words that are coming out of your mouth...are...like you just don’t care if they mean anything or not, but they do, and they mean something, and none of it is trite, and you should just stop doubting yourself so much. You could do a lot.”
“How did this become about me?”
“I don’t know. Because I can’t talk about me. I don’t know who I am. I’m a dumb girl looking to kill herself and then watch herself die.”
“You want to kill yourself.” It wasn’t a question. I knew it was true.
“I want to survive. I want to survive everything. I want to live through beatings and rapes and drugs and alcohol and stupidity and starvation. I want to survive the apocalypse so I can see this place as empty as it should be. Maybe it could all look like your parking lot. You think?”
“We could only be so lucky.”
“Do you know what I mean? God, I wish I could articulate it.”
“You don’t need to. I know.”
I kissed her on the forehead. She kissed me on the lips. I wanted to die with her.
She fell asleep in my arms. She got up to use the bathroom, stood in the hallway and stared at me, then walked away. I didn’t go after her. Maybe she would come back. When I first met her, she came with me to the gas station, came with me to my apartment, and then left. She somehow found me again the next afternoon. She hadn’t slept. She wouldn’t tell me what she had done after she had left. I said something that made her laugh. Something insignificant. She began to cry. She laughed and cried at the same thing. I could understand that.
The monsters along the road seemed to be crying and laughing as well. They howled and screamed and roared and tried as hard as they could to destroy, defile, and make the world actually mean something. They failed again and again. I gave them credit for trying.
Cimerman: Obviously, that's a long excerpt. Actually, it's an early version of the story you had published in Babel Inc. The version that appeared in the novel, for those reading this who have not read City Maps, was about four times as long and featured other aspects of the story intertwined with what is in this version, but for our purposes, I found this version to be easier to use. I hope that's alright.
Bell: There's a part of me that likes that version better. It's essentially the whole thing, the entirety of what was published in Babel Inc. That version doesn't really tell the story that I was trying to tell, but it's the emotional core. In that respect, it might be better. It might be more essential.
Cimerman: There are many details in this story that have reoccurred in other works of yours. Ghosts, monsters, things of that sort, appear here somewhat metaphorically, I think. Or did you mean them literally? Can you explain your fascination with, for lack of a better word, monsters? What is a monster, or a ghost, to you?
Bell: Well, in this story, there's a convenient explanation for why the narrator, Aden, or me I suppose, is seeing these things. He's hallucinating. That's something you don't fully get from this excerpt or from this early version, but the idea was that Aden has inhaled some of this drug that his roommates are smoking, a fictional drug that is quite powerful, powerful enough to cause hallucinations simply from breathing second hand smoke. I would never do that now, use that trick; a hallucination is too simple, too much of a cheat. I think calling them metaphoric is a bit of a cheat as well; all good metaphors are essentially just accurate descriptions. They are reality. Reality is metaphoric. I'm thinking of a short novel, a novella, by Bruno Schultz, which I hadn't read when I wrote this, but he uses metaphors in such a total way, in such a complete way, that the entire world is transformed by them and it's impossible to tell what is just an expressionistic or metaphorical description and what is literal, or what we usually think of as literal, which might be better served by the word "realistic." You probably know the story I'm speaking of, Street of Crocodiles. Nonetheless, it's best to not think of those monsters and ghouls as metaphoric because then you're liable to think that they are symbolic, that they stand for something, which they don't. Others might read into it a certain way and decide that they do and there might be truth to those interpretations but I don't think of them that way. The narrator is being followed by monsters and he is following a ghost and it is as simple as that. Of course I've read your work on the research of Naomi Grace, your piece on her, "A Catologue of 21st Century Monsters," your lectures and so on, so I think you understand what I'm getting at. These monsters aren't imaginary. They aren't a literary device. I can't say why I keep coming back to them except that they seem to be an essential part of living in this world that I think contemporary American fiction, at least so-called literary fiction, forgets about, or, at best, they use them as metaphors. I don't know what a monster is; I think that is the definition right there. They are an unknown, but they are a visceral, experiential unknown. We simply don't have the language to describe them and we never can because they are pre-linguistic. So we call them monsters, and of course there are infinite varieties of monsters. It seems sort of silly to be writing about them; it makes you feel kind of childish, but we can't forget those childish fears. There is a filmmaker, Jan Svankmajer, who said something, I can't quote him exactly, but he said something like, if we can't tell ourselves and others ghosts stories before we go to sleep and fairy tales in the morning, Western civilization will have no where left to go. I believe he said Western civilization, but I'd like to think humanity would have no where left to go. We'd cease being human. Maybe we should. Maybe we should become something better and leave behind what are essentially children stories and nightmare stories and superstition, but I like being human in all its ugliness and I think those things are much more essential than, say, or capacity for rationality or our scientific progress. I've taken this to heart, I suppose. It's become my goal in writing, if I have a goal, to tell ghost stories. It wasn't my goal when I wrote this but I was already on my way. It's odd looking at that again and seeing how similar it is to things I write now, but I suppose it was only five years ago or so. I feel as if I've changed so much since then and that I've matured as a writer, but I'm stilling doing essentially the same things.
Cimerman: Another reoccurring image, one that is central to this story but seems to pop up in almost everything you write, is parking lots. This is certainly an odd thing to fixate on. Can you talk a little about that?
Bell: Maybe a little. I don't know what it is, though I do throw needless reference or pointless description involving a parking lot in practically everything I write. I suppose it's a calling card of sorts, like my signature, though I think it's verging on self-parody these days. I should probably move on. But, well, when you grow up in the suburbs there really isn't anything to fixate on; they are designed that way, designed to be a kind of functional nothingness, a place for commerce and the bare necessities of living and we design these areas, cities are just as bad really, we design them more for automobiles than human beings, and I don't want to start getting political and sound like a bad chapter our of The Geography of Nowhere because I do find parking lots oddly beautiful. As I was saying, when you grow up in an environment that gives you nothing to become invested in emotionally or intellectually except in maybe the most base and mundane of ways, you end up investing very odd things with a lot of significance. The people who build those malls and parking lots and six lane highways invested nothing in them, not like, say, a cathedral or a stunning bridge or something, no, everything is built to be purely functional and to not stand out, to not be conspicuous. That seems like a problem but if people took a little creative initiative, anything can be imbued with meaning. Most people, maybe, though this is going to be a cynical thing to say, don't bother or they only let things have the meaning commercials tell them to give it, so they fixate, maybe, on fast food restaurants or funny billboards. I like billboards too, but I prefer it when they're blank or they've been forgotten and the advertising is peeling off and revealing another advertisement underneath, or maybe just plain whiteness. I live in a city now, of sorts, and there isn't as much of that sort of thing, though there is still a lot, far too much, but at the same time I'm nostalgic for the emptiness of where I grew up, where truly all those constructs around you don't mean anything, so they can mean everything. They can mean whatever you want them to mean. Of course, another problem is that we tear these things down so quickly; we're constantly uprooting our world and rebuilding it just when people start to get use to it and start to invest it with personal meaning. The problem with contemporary architecture, or city planning, or whatever you want to call it, isn't that it was built in this meaningless, crass, commercial, practical way. Old cities full of old architecture, when those old things were built, whatever they were, most of them were built for the same reasons essentially, though the context changes and what was important to them may be different than what is important to us, as a society. But those remnants from old cities were once, at some point, not all of them but most of them, they were once mundane and boring too. But they weren't torn down. People were able to invest them with meaning, which is to say, people were allowed to live in them, to make them a place of life. That sounds corny, but I think it's true. We don't seem to want to let our country age. We want to keep improving it or changing it. I live in Seattle now, I grew up in Arizona in the suburbs and now I live in a fairly big city and it's maybe even more of a problem here. Nothing here is old and there's all this new money coming in so nothing is left to sit here long enough and become a lived-in place. I'm overstating; obviously we don't go and rip up everything every decade but it seems close to true. The second house I lived in as a child, the first one is still there, but the second one, where I spent more of my childhood that I can remember than the first, isn't there anymore. And that wasn't that long ago. It was a shitty house, a mobile home, in a shitty mobile home park and everything around it was ugly. Liberal, civic minded people might have legitimate reasons for wanting to tear up these places, because they are not designed in a way that encourages a healthy life, but I think we should just let these boring ugly places be. Let them be and maybe they'll stop being boring and ugly, not because the government or the city or some civic minded groups step in and try to make the place more lively or livable or safe or pretty, but because people will live there and continue to live there and they will fix it themselves from the ground up. That's how communities develop, not through rules and design, but through living there. Any shithole can become a beautiful place if we let people decide for themselves how they want to make it beautiful. I say, keep the parking lots and billboards and strip malls. Don't rebuild it to make it look like a bucolic rural neighborhood with winding-roads and little parks and fountains. Don't build your new strip malls to look like faux-town squares out of some Disney version of Paris. Let them be ugly American strip malls so we can create our own American identity.
Of course, you're as familiar with the mystical nature of parking lots as you are with the ubiquity of monsters. I was going to say you're no stranger to it, but we're all strangers to that sort of thing. I don't know if we can make friends with monsters or parking lots, but some of us try.
Cimerman: I also want to touch on the story's reference to Tantra. Neither this version nor the longer version really explains why the map was written in a book called Introduction to Tantra? Can you give us an insight into the inclusion of this book? Did you have a real book in mind?
Bell: I probably did, but I can't remember now. I know it was a religious book. Or, not a religious book, but a semi-academic text about the religious practices that can be characterized as "tantric." It is not a sex book, though I'm okay with people reading it that way and I suppose I shouldn't destroy the ambiguity by saying that it is not a sex book. I don't really know anything about tantra, though I was studying Buddhism at the time and found Tantric Buddhism interesting, I can't say much about it. There is Tantric Hinduism also, and really, other things probably also. I don't know anything much about it. I think the story was trying to present a certain idea that seemed similar to the idea of tantra, that there are certain deviant, destructive forces that can destroy us, as human beings, but if we have the right intention and our will is, I don't know, properly attuned and we are prepared for it, we can harness these, shall we say, dark powers of deviance, the powers of the more destructive sides of humanity, we can harness them in order to attain enlightenment, or Nirvana, or whatever you want to call it. I found a similarity in Alice's search for the end of the world and her own personal goal of self-destruction as a means to self-realization. And, in the longer version, the character of Marcus, and his whole gang, they have the same idea, and the narrator, Aden, ends up in the same sort of place, a place where we try to understand the truth of our surroundings by embracing the seemingly worst qualities of those surroundings. I think, though, in the end, not in this story so much but in the story "Time Drag," which isn't very good but it completes Aden's arc, I think Aden decides that this isn't quite the right route for him, or maybe for anyone. Not that those practices don't work, or not that it isn't a good idea to find the power and beauty, or whatever, in the darker aspects of humanity. What I think Aden realizes is that there is no Nirvana to discover, which is an unhappy realization and we hope that he is wrong. Anyway, I might have misread what tantra is all about, but it's a misreading I like and I suppose it's influenced me, whether it is an entirely accurate reading or not. Again, I was studying Buddhism a bit at the time, but I don't really remember any of that now. Not enough to say anything more about it anyway. The hipness of it all is somewhat embarrassing. Oh how cool, incorporating half-ass Eastern Religion and sexy weird cult shit. Luckily, the story itself didn't go into detail about it, so I avoided being too hip. At least I wasn't name dropping Aleister Crowley. Certainly, it's one of many elements present in City Maps that goes mostly unexplored, just as many plot threads are left dangling. I suppose that's one of the flaws of the book, though it may be one of its assets. Little is resolved. The world is left a tangled mess. This is the way it seems to me.
Check out writethis.com issue 4.2.5, due out in late July, for the continuation of the interview...!