Coach House asks Alan Reed some things about Isobel and Emile
Coach House Books asks author Alan Reed a few things about Isobel and Emile:
CH: Your style is very staccato, full of repetition, and impeccably precise, while offering little in terms of the big picture – it makes for a beautifully hypnotic prose that lets in information almost obliquely. Can you tell us why you chose to write that way?
AR: I wanted the book to happen on the page. This may be the poet in me affecting how I write novels, but I didn't want the book to be about something, I didn't want it to have the sense of describing something that was happening somewhere on the other side of the page, I wanted everything to be right there, on the page. And all the stylistic devices you mentioned – the repetition, the absence of any big picture, the close attention to detail – are ways to keep the scene of the action as close to the surface of the page as possible – words that are the elements of the novel coming together into a story. It's a very subtle distinction, but I think the book is hypnotic because of how this makes its language come to life and move in ways that we don't get to see happen very often.
CH: Of all the art forms Emile might have you chosen, you opted for puppets. Is that a comment on our own sense of autonomy? Or did you watch a lot of Punch and Judy as a kid?
AR: Emile actually started as a painter, and that didn't work because I couldn't figure out how to write about painting. It's the problem of all the elements of a painting happening simultaneously and words coming one after the other – I couldn't make the writing painterly enough to be satisfied with it. So I tried a couple of other things and puppetry was the art form that fit the story best. It's just lucky that I also really like puppets.
And yes, there is definitely something to be said about autonomy, or the way that the image of the puppet repeats something of the feel of the style of the book. What I wanted was for Emile to have an imaginative space somewhat removed from his everyday life, somewhere he could go to work things out. How that helps him figure things out but also makes him incapable of actually doing anything. And then Isobel is the inverse: she's free to act but has to spend most of the book figuring out what, exactly, to do with herself. Thematically speaking, they're the separated halves of a whole and each succeeds (or not) insofar as they're able to incorporate something of the other into themselves. In this sense, they're something of an allegory for the relationship between art and life.
CH: You’ve not told us when or where this story is happening. Is that deliberate? Want to let us in on the secret?
AR: It's deliberate. I wanted to leave the place undecided to give you, the reader, the freedom to imagine a place that makes sense for you. Because it's a story that could happen anywhere, really. When I was writing it, I was imagining something like a central European city in the early twentieth century (I really love Czech marionettes), but that's no more valid an interpretation than any other.
CH: Isobel and Emile are both pretty taciturn. Why choose characters who speak so little, who refuse to reveal themselves to us?
AR: I think of it as more of a question of how they reveal themselves. Because they do. They don't say very much, but all the little things that they each do add up to a pretty good impression of what they're like. At least, I hope it does. It's like learning about people by watching what they do instead of waiting to be told – like learning how to pay attention to all the things people reveal without realizing it.
CH: What books and writers have influenced you in the writing of this book?
AR: Samuel Beckett. Stylistically, this book is very much in his debt. And also Marie Redonnet and Agota Kristof, who both do stark minimalism like Beckett did, but just a bit warmer. Sort of like hope hasn't yet been entirely extinguished in their imaginary lives. (Or maybe it's just that they're not yet as old and broken. But I hope not.)
I was also transitioning from a very free-form experimental writing practice to working within the conventional structure of the novel, and doing that meant having to think through what the novel was and is, and figuring out how to work with it and what, exactly, I wanted to do with it. The New Novelists, Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet especially, were very helpful with that. And as I started to fit all of that in with my general understanding of writing Mallarmé somehow kept popping up too.
(Yes, I do have something of a crush on the French. How could you tell?)
CH: The story is unusual in that it begins after the relationship has ended – it starts in the section of the story we might think of as the anticlimax. What was your reason for beginning there?
AR: Honestly, I spent most of my twenties heartbroken. It turns out I am pretty good at falling for people and not so terribly good at coping with things coming to an end. I wanted to make better sense of that moment when it's over and you have to start figuring out what to do with yourself now. And spending a year and a half writing a novel about something seems to be a good way to do that.
I've never been satisfied with the accepted wisdom that it is best to forget and move on. There's a way in which Isobel & Emile is about me trying to figure out a way to keep the best parts of a relationship from slipping away after it's over.