In Stewart O’Nan’s latest novel, The Odds, Art and Marion Fowler — a couple on the verge of bankruptcy, foreclosure, and divorce — decide to take a second honeymoon at Niagara Falls, and place their dwindling savings (and, perhaps, their marriage) on the roulette table. The Odds is a small book, but it’s far from slight. O’Nan renders the Fowler’s marriage in uncommonly moving and precise prose, as The Odds masterfully captures the oscillations that define our closest relationships. (The book is also one hell of an argument against infidelity.)
Alex Shephard spoke to O’Nan about writing like The Pixies, long-term relationships, and the difficulty of tightrope walking.
Alex Shephard: I like my odds of going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. 1 in 3 is better than I expected.
Steward O’Nan: They’re not bad! The weird thing is that no one has ever died walking a tightrope over the falls. How the fuck is that possible? Then I realized, tightrope walking isn’t that hard. Sorry Man on Wire guy, but it’s just not that hard.
How is that possible? I watch so much sports, and no one can stay on their fucking feet.
Maybe it’s a level of professionalism, but it’s a long way across and the weather is never good. The weather always fucking sucks. It’s always wet; it’s always windy. And yet no one has died. Isn’t that crazy? That’s crazy.
Well, you’ve got to be real good to even think about trying it. It’s not like, “Oh, I just practiced last week in my back yard. I think I can do it!” There’s no American Idol of walking across Niagara Falls on a tight rope.
How did you settle on Niagara Falls?
Coming from where they’re coming from, Cleveland, it’s natural. Also, Niagara Falls has that kind of old-timey feel. When you think of Vegas you think of sleazy stuff, you think about sleazy weddings. When you think about Niagara Falls sometimes you think about [the] ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s: here’s the bright new shiny cleanly scrubbed newlyweds going there and having these high hopes. There’s something quaint, but there’s also that idea of daring and risk, because of the falls themselves. There’s the history of people going over in the barrels, the tightrope walkers and everything like that. Vegas doesn’t have that. Vegas has magicians, and shit like that.
There’s also the natural beauty of the place, the power of the falls. You think of Niagara Falls as this cheesy-ass place, but you go there and you’re like, “Oh my god.” Then you realize that 50% of the people around you have travelled thousands of miles to get there — from India, from Russia, from China, wherever — just to see that. You realize that it’s worth going to see. It’s this amazing, amazing, powerful place. Then you’ve got the Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum. There’s the power, the romance of the thing, surrounded by how it’s been trivialized and Valentine’s Day-ized. It’s a little bit of both.
Similarly, Art and Marion are attempting to relive their honeymoon, which is, in a way, a sort of liminal space between the wedding and the beginning of married life.
[I liked] the idea of Canada and the U.S., of going out to the boundary. People always talk about Twain going off and finding that boundary — you’re not really in America, in a way, you’re on the boundary. I wanted this undefined place, this place between, because they’re in between so many things. They come from the U.S. and go to Canada, then they go back and forth across the river.
There’s also this irony, because while Niagara Falls is in Canada, it’s more American than Niagara Falls, New York is! There’s all the hotels and crap like that [on the Canadian side]. If you’re in the casino, for instance, you wouldn’t even know the Falls were there. You have to find your way to a window to look at them, instead of just putting quarters into a slot machine.
In a novel like, say, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Ken Kalfus treats the breakdown of a marriage satirically, ironically, even venomously. You don’t do that with Art and Marion. There are times where the disconnect between the two of them is funny, when their actions seem especially cruel, but you never invite us to detest them. Why?
They’re not heroic characters. They might not even be sympathetic characters, but I don’t want them to come across as unsympathetic. As a writer and a reader you need empathy — you don’t necessarily need sympathy, but from the reader’s point of view you want to discover who these people are, why they do what they do. You want to say, “Sometimes I feel that way too.” And as a writer, if you’re painting unsympathetic characters, then you’re talking down to them.
You don’t want the reader to pull away and think, “That could never be me. I don’t understand these people because they’re doing things I’ve never done.” You want the reader to understand [your characters,] whether they’re on their side or not. But you can’t force that. You have to leave that up to the reader. You can’t beg for sympathy, either. I don’t want the Nicholas Evans/Nicholas Sparks kind of thing — though, I’ve never been accused of that.
Your next book is about a woman who forgets who her husband is, right?
Every day! Every fucking day.
You bring up the idea of fate quite a bit in the novel. Do you see outside forces shaping your characters and their actions, or do you think much of the characters’ actions are determined internally?
Their personalities drive everything. If they were different people, it could turn out differently. It’s not necessarily that things are determined from the outside, but from the inside: who they are and what they’ll do for or to one another. Marion isn’t willing to say, “Look, it’s over.” And Art isn’t willing to say, “I know it’s over, we need to let each other go.” They can’t do that because of who they are. That’s what’s holding them back — it’s not the rest of the world. It’s not the economy, it’s not the bailout. It’s how well we know each other and how much we’re willing to give of each other. That’s love: how much are you willing to give? How much do you hold yourself apart? And the pain of not being known or not wanting to be known by someone else, especially in a long term relationship.
That’s individuality, autonomy, whatever you want to call it. There’s always some refutation of the idea of “being one” with another person in my work. That’s just how I see the world, how I see what time does to people.
That’s how Marion remembers thinking about Art when they first got married.
Make plans, God laughs! That is the mystery. How do we feel so strongly and so good about things and suddenly you look back and wonder, “What was I thinking?” We were thinking less and feeling more.
It’s also possible that it wasn’t absolutely true then and now it simply isn’t true. We fall in love and then love fades. Then we fall in love again. That’s the mystery of love: why were things so right — just Tuesday night, they were great! — and now things are so fucked up? Everybody goes through that. You don’t have to be married 30 years to go through that. You can be with someone for a week and still wonder, “What the fuck is going on? What happened?”
The Odds is such a quiet novel — so much takes place internally.
Yes, the old French film thing.
And yet you juxtapose the silence of the estranged husband and wife with such tremendous, awesome noise: the sound of the Falls, the sound of the casino floor, the sound of the Heart concert.
Like the Pixies! Loud, quiet, loud – totally soft, totally loud! Totally soft, totally loud! I was playing with dynamics in the novel a lot and having a lot of fun with them. When they’re together, the things they need to say to each other they can’t say.
[Art’s] always looking for the moment he can say the right thing, thinking that if he says the right thing it’ll change everything.
The Odds strikes me as the reverse of the kind of allegory I’m used to. Often, the relationship is stand in for these larger political or economic instabilities. In your book, the credit crunch seems like a perfect metaphor for your character’s marriage, and not the other way around — they were living on a kind of overextended emotional credit for too long, to say nothing of actual credit.
There’s that inertia. At one point, she thinks, “Wasn’t everything held together by inertia?” And that fits life; married life. And, of course, the economy.
Did you ever consider making the book more explicitly political?
No, not really, although I have written about that for years, coming from Pittsburgh. You see that all the time. The downwardly mobile middle-class has been the foci of my writing.
But in this case I really just wanted to look at marriage, more than anything, and the difficulty of marriage: what’s supposedly agreed upon, but is actually not agreed upon at all.
Intimacy often just creates even more problems, rather than solving existing ones.
Yeah, you expect honesty and generosity, but it’s just not there. I think I’ve been writing about this all along, this question of, “How well do we know the people closest to us?” That seems far more important and interesting and me than the larger political landscape or anything like that. Typically, I use whatever’s going on in the culture to be a nutcracker, something that breaks open the characters, puts them under pressure. Then I see how they respond to one another.
And if the big picture bleeds in, fine. But that’s not really what I’m doing.
That seems slightly different than the kind of “social novel” written by someone like Jonathan Franzen.
He’s trying to write the social novel — he asks, “What’s important, socially, in America, that I can write about?” I think that’s where he starts, and then he moves more towards character.
And you, by contrast, start by asking, “What’s important with these characters?”
But again, that comes from being from a part of the country where the economic reality has always been an important part of daily life: How do we live? How do we get by? Where do we live? What can we afford?
Pittsburgh, where you’re from, and Cleveland and Buffalo, which you write about in this book — those cities aren’t too dissimilar from the small Rust Belt town where I grew up: defined by a couple of industries, economically devastated for the last 30 years, hit hard by the recession, certainly, but sort of living in a kind of permanent recession.
Detroit is a great example. When Detroit tanked, it basically killed [Pittsburgh.] That’s where the steel went. Once they tanked we were fucking screwed! Now that they’re trying to make a comeback, we’re like, “Where were you guys 30 years ago?”
And also, the two cities share something because they’re trying to hold on to something that’s been gone for a long time. That shit has been gone for a long time. In Pittsburgh, we memorialize or sentimentalize the past, but it’s gone. Those places are bulldozed to the fucking ground and they’re not coming back.
Springsteen was singing, “Those jobs are gone and they ain’t coming back,” and that was 30 fucking years ago.
The jobs are gone, the people are gone — going way, way back.
Why did you decide to have Art and Marion go to a Heart concert?
I love Heart. They’re a great band. There’s the idea of ’70s rock having meant something to them, and yet its moment is so far gone.
You can’t go back.
Rock ’n’ roll is what’s happening right now; there’s no such thing as “Classic Rock.”
There’s a really interesting moment right before the Heart concert, where you switch perspective for, I think, the only time in the novel. Suddenly, for only a sentence or two, you use a flash forward. Why?
It’s kind of a cheat, in a way — you’re letting the reader jump off to somewhere else. You’re providing them with an expectation — a much bigger expectation than they thought they were going to get. The reader thinks, “I’m in the scene,” but all of a sudden you’re saying “Later on . . .”
It fits with the way that the book is organized, which is also the way that Emily Alone is organized — the way several of my books, going back to, I think, Wish You Were Here, were organized: not along some dramatic tension, but about how people are going to see this years later. What goes in the book has to be what is remembered about this time years later; what [the characters] would naturally look back upon and think about.
But in those [flash forward moments,] the writer’s holding the cards and he momentarily turns them over to show the reader, who’s like, “Did that just happen? What does it mean?” It’s an exciting tactic, though a lot of people use it a lot. Don’t use it too much. I know it’s a cheap trick, but it definitely breaks the scene, it breaks the tone. Also, I think I open up that very 3rd person, omniscient, Victorian type narration. I can be above them, like, “Here is the scene, I am painting this for you.” That’s just an extension: “Later, we find this out.” That comes back in the very, very end, in the last line. Instead of being with them, I break off again and say, “But, of course! There you have it, Dear Reader!”
When did you realize that that was how you were going to end the book? Was it planned in advance?
No, it just sort of came to me. I was writing and then I was like, “Oh, shit. That’s the ending!” It’s one of those endings were you just have to say, “that’s it,” and walk away. Some readers will like it and some won’t — it’s very sudden.
Neither of those “zoom out” moments are “happily ever after” moments, though — despite everything that’s happened, there’s no sense that the weekend was as redemptive as it seems by the end of the novel.
I was going to do a larger epilogue, where it’s clear that the money does not help, and they end up in the same place anyway.
That seems like it would be almost cruel of you.
Yeah! Then I thought, “Why not let them have this moment?” After the last line got down on the page, I thought, “What does it mean?” Then I realized that the important thing is that it was the process that had gotten them there. The outcome is really not important. They’ve had 28, 29 years together, they’ve raised children, they’ve had moments of great happiness and intimacy and great sadness — all of it! It’s all of it. I wanted them to have the happiness of the moment together, which they’ll always remember, though they may not always remember the moment happily — even though it’s a very happy moment.
You realize not just the validity of the relationship, but everything about the relationship. It’s almost like the old cliché — the freeze frame to end the movie. It can’t last, that love or romance or the feeling that we have about almost anything. It can’t last; it changes. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing. It just is. That’s what we’re up against.