While reading The Morels by Christopher Hacker, I was struck by his ability to create a novel of ideas, and yet weave an urgent narrative at the same time. This is no small feat. In writing a book of ideas — in the case of The Morels, a book that chews on the meaning of art, how autobiographical writing can possibly affect those around us, how art can be both destructive and creative — an author has to carefully balance the ideas so as not to become didactic. Fluidity, incorporating the concepts and questions organically into the narrative, is vital, and Hacker achieves this brilliantly.
In The Morels, Hacker tells the story of Arthur Morel and his family, and how Arthur struggles to be true to his writing while holding onto the family he loves. It’s a discursive book, and yet one where the reader constantly wants to know, what will happen next? What will happen to the Morels?
The book is further framed, reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, by an outside narrator — a friend of the family, named Chris, like his creator. Below, Hacker and I discuss criticism, music, the ethics of autobiographical writing, pretentiousness in art, and more.
Paula Bomer: After finishing The Morels, I was struck by how smoothly you managed to write a novel of character and plot that also chewed on numerous ideas. Did this come organically from the writing process or was it something you set out to do?
Christopher Hacker: I did set out to write a book that contained ideas, but those ideas came about organically — I didn’t know until I started what they would turn out to be. In some ways, it’s something I still struggle with: what is this book about? I’m still not entirely sure. I began with a situation: a man writes a book that destroys his family. It’s a situation that begs three questions: Who is this man? What is the book? And why would he write such a book? I didn’t know, but I thought it was enough to get me going and, maybe more importantly, keep me going.
I was on a Philip Roth kick back in 2006, when I began. I had read The Human Stain and American Pastoral and The Counterlife, and one of the things I love about these books is the way Roth uses dramatic situations to explore abstract ideas. In The Human Stain we have a renowned professor’s downfall, the death of his wife, a love affair, etc. The stuff of high drama. But we see after a while that the drama is really a jumping off place for the more discursive passages about identity and race and disgrace, and I liked that there was a kind of fiction that could both satisfy my desire for story and my desire to be intellectually engaged.
Arthur writes a book using his name and the names of his wife and son, and it’s a dark and disturbing book that has terrible consequences. I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll stick to the ideological. What he wrote is a piece of autobiographical fiction, something a lot of people have done to great effect. But for some reason, like his earlier stunt in music, Arthur manages to shoot himself in the foot with his effort.
As we end up learning from Arthur. He’s not making autobiography for any of the normal reasons. He has certain ideas about what art is, what an artist’s role is, and he uses the form as a kind of weapon. I don’t know if he shoots himself in the foot, though. That implies he’s unaware that the book would be harmful to himself or his family, or that it’s somehow an accident. On some level, I think Arthur knows exactly what he’s doing, knows exactly how this will all go down.
I was just reading about Light Years by James Salter, and how he passed his neighbor Barbara a copy of the book, and she read it and realized it’s all about her family (and the Salters’, but less so). In the novel, their marriage is a sham, and they divorce. Shortly thereafter Barbara ended up getting divorced.
Writers often use the people in their lives when writing, but sometimes it’s more obvious than other times. Big Ray by Michael Kimball is a very autobiographical novel about his relationship with his dad, Ray. His father is dead, and that does change things, if for no other reason in that it makes it less awkward. These ideas about what is ethical in using other people’s lives is one that has been discussed before, but your novel puts this gray area — or at least I think it’s a gray area — under a microscope.
That’s fascinating about Salter. I’ve struggled with the ethics myself. The first piece of writing I ever published was about a coffee bar where I worked right out of college, owned by a gay couple from San Francisco. During the course of my time there, they’d become like family. Years after I left the job, I’d visit, check in, see how they were doing. They eventually went through a painful breakup, and in the piece I detailed their breakup and the custody fight over the coffee bar. After it was printed, I was in the neighborhood and passed one of them on the street. He stared right at me — and just kept walking. It was an important experience, my first inkling that what I write had the power to affect others and to alter my relationship with them. It made me appreciate those memoirists who reach into the closet and feel around for skeletons.
I recently read Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, which is just incredible. I went around for days afterwards trying to convince my wife and myself that my next book would be a memoir. She wasn’t buying it. Neither was I, really. There’s a kind of fearlessness to memoir writing that I just don’t have. I’m too worried about what others will think. Even the autobiographical sections of this book I had to circle around and around. I think you’re right about death opening things up some. My father’s death has given me a certain freedom to write about him, to gain a perspective that I didn’t have when he was alive. I think writing about my mother would be much harder, if for no other reason than she is very much alive and I speak with her regularly.
Another thing that is disputed in your book is the accuracy of memory. In Arthur, this discrepancy costs him everything. But in a gentler moment, he recalls eating ice cream and it being a story told to him, and now he’s not sure if the story is real or implanted from the repetition of hearing it. I think this is a valid doubt. In fact, I have no doubt that many people, and even everyone to a certain extent, have “false” memories. Watching the movie Capturing The Friedmans brings this point into sharp relief.
Capturing the Friedmans was amazing, one of those documentaries like Grey Gardens or Sherman’s March where the filmmakers started with a focus on one subject only to end up with a movie about something else entirely. There’s a lesson in there about following your creative instincts.
But yes, that idea appeals to me, false memory. I’m not sure why. Our memories have the power to define us, don’t they? An early trauma can determine what kind of future you’ll have. But we also have the capacity to overcome the gravitational pull of past events, and the work begins and ends with memory. Remembering something repressed, or letting go of some long-held pain, or choosing to forget. On a lighter note, I know someone who will, under pressure, admit that some of the funny anecdotes she tells about herself are in fact borrowed from people who have more interesting lives. She also admits that after a while, she gets confused about which stories are actually her own. Memory is not stable; it’s prone to all sorts of revisions and deletions. Just think of all these overturned court cases based on new DNA evidence, cases that had once hinged on someone’s imperfect recollection of events.
Later in the book, the narrator and his friends decide to make a documentary of Arthur and his family, and the travails his novel, also called The Morels, causes. We get to know Arthur’s artistic, rebellious, parents, pure product of the sixties — into drugs, sex, and dismantling the “establishment”. Arthur has suffered terribly, the friends realize, from neglect and worse.
I immediately thought of The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq. In that novel, Houellebecq rips apart the façade of peace and love in the sixties and exposes the dark side and a child that suffered. Was that novel a touchstone for you? Beyond that aspect, you take your book in a very different direction, and your novel is much more layered in multiple frames. I think of your novel as the circles inside a tree trunk.
Circles inside a tree trunk. I like that image. I did feel as though there were these separate strata I was working myself down through as I pursued the question Who is Arthur Morel? Each answer would reveal another layer, and then another, and then another. The section about his parents was immensely satisfying to write because they were so clear to me. Arthur was a real enigma. I just could not figure him out, which was frustrating because he’s, you know, the main character. But as soon as I met Doc and Cynthia, Arthur’s parents, I knew exactly who there were. Writing those chapters felt almost like I was reading about them. Maybe it had something to do with working through all of the rest of those layers — by the time I got to that one, the centermost circle, it was obvious what was inside it.
I haven’t read Houellebecq, but there was a writer I returned to throughout the process: Leonard Michaels. Sylvia and his Diaries. Michaels is able to cut to the shameful heart of a moment in a way few other writers can. Reading him is a reminder about economy and emotional honesty. It’s funny, because I look back at my prose and what I’ve written about and it doesn’t bear much resemblance to Michaels, I don’t think, but I had those books at my side throughout much of the writing of it. I’d get stuck and open the Diaries to a random page and read for a few minutes, enough to fortify me.
You have a lot of obvious name play. Morel, moral, Wright, right. Is there a difference between what is moral and what is right? I admire this bit of obvious symbolism in such a complicated book. You get away with it because everything else is so hard to easily pinpoint. Your novel seems to be a book of questions with no real answers, a philosophical novel.
Thank you for saying so. I do think that there can be a difference between what is moral and what is right, and it’s when the two diverge that things can get interesting. Or at least when we define “moral” as meaning what is accepted as right by society. Often the artist is working at the margins, and sometimes in opposition to social constraints, at the leading edge, if not pushing for change explicitly than at the very least pointing out hypocrisy. An artist needs to get his hands dirty, working with topics that most of us would rather not think about. Yet oftentimes what we are doing when we explore such topics, situations that have a character doing immoral things, is reinforcing our own sense of right and wrong. To be shocked is to remind ourselves of the social norms. We need to speak the name of terrible things occasionally, to touch these things with our imaginations, in order to be reminded that the euphemisms we use are not the thing itself, and not to be lulled by euphemisms and elisions into thinking that these things we call taboos aren’t so bad.
I’m thinking of this terrible thing that happened to these three young women in Ohio recently. In all of the news reports, the focus was on their escape, on whether the neighbors knew what was going on, on the man who held them captive. Not on what actually happened to them. But this is important too. They were raped. And beaten. Repeatedly. Daily. For ten years. This is the truth. These facts are equally as important. More so, I’d argue.
I found the end of The Morels shocking but also perfect — that it could end in no other way. Some writers know the ending of a book when writing it, but for some reason, I’m guessing this came through the writing process. Am I wrong?
It’s true. In 2011, I finished what I thought was a final draft of the novel and my agent sent it out to several editors only to come back with a sense that, clearly, this was not a final draft. In a way, I was glad. In another way, I wept uncontrollably for a month. But somehow, in the back of my head, I knew it wasn’t done, and the experience helped force me to untangle what would become the final knot in the story. It underwent a major revision after that, and much of what happens in the final three chapters came as a result of those changes.
Arthur Morel is seen through the eyes of a former childhood friend, someone who envied Arthur’s insane gift, his enormous talent for music, but found him annoying in his genius and arrogance, too. And Arthur is annoying. But when he throws away his chance to make a career for himself just to make some artistic point — a point made by Duchamp years ago, and others since — the narrator is baffled. They’ve discussed, basically, the meaning of art many times, and have never come to an agreement. Some of the beauty of these flashbacks is how strange things can bond us in our formative years to people we don’t necessarily like.
The narrator doesn’t particularly like Arthur because, right, Arthur isn’t particularly likeable. It took me a long time for me to be okay with that. I kept trying to make him more pleasant, but it never worked. At the same time, I couldn’t make him a total asshole, because then we’d begin to lose sympathy for his wife and for the narrator. And I didn’t want him to be a guy who didn’t care about his wife and kid — the premise is that he does in fact love his family, and that what he does when he writes this book isn’t done out of malice towards them. So, Arthur’s not a total asshole, but he is kind of a jerk. And we have this narrator following him around. The two characters need to be connected enough for the narrator to learn, and tell us, Arthur’s story.
What keeps him involved? Past history is great for that. In American Pastoral Zuckerman runs into the Swede, a childhood acquaintance, and becomes fascinated with his story. Or a better example: Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. The narrator there has a similarly fraught relationship with her freshman year roommate, a larger-than-life figure who is not particularly likeable. What keeps the narrator engaged with her story is, as you say, the bond she forges with her in that formative first semester sharing a dorm room.
Do you think Arthur, or anyone, for that matter, can overthink art? Can the critic in an artist ruin things?
Back when I was studying music, I remember discussing with fellow students the idea that you could learn too much theory. This was especially so of the performers, who were, many of them at least, a reactionary bunch. They were superstitious of musical analysis, thought that knowing too much about music might be dangerous. They worried that, through theory, the “secret” of music might be revealed to them and that this held the potential of ruining its magic.
I was studying composition, and I like to think us composers were more evolved in our thinking, but we weren’t, really. There was a fellow composer who became interested in Schenkerian analysis, and for the better part of a year wandered deep into the weeds of it, and at the end of the year he switched majors. It was like he’d gone over to the dark side. It became a cautionary tale. Don’t learn too much — or you’ll end up a theory major! It’s kind of absurd, thinking about it now. These attitudes give way too much power to the theorist. As if any theory could make Brahms less beautiful, or Ives less strange. But there was something sweet about it, too. This fierce protectiveness speaks to the delicate nature of our feelings about art — and just how important art was to us.
My mom is a painter, and she has a deep suspicion of words when words are used to describe or characterize or explain a painting — hers or others’. One of her favorite quotes is from Barnett Newman, who once said dismissively that an art theorist is to an artist what an ornithologist is to a bird. They exist in separate universes and speak totally different languages. One hides behind bushes with a pair of binoculars; the other soars above trees and rooftops.
I think I’ve inherited some of this suspicion, and it has made me, paradoxically, yearn towards theory and at the same time unable to wrap my head around it. I have a shelf full of Foucault and Sartre and Benjamin, but I’ve never been able to get more than a few paragraphs into these books before my eyes glaze over and I lose patience. I wonder if it’s genetic. I’m thinking of an episode of Nova I saw once. It features a scientist who breeds narcoleptic dogs. You watch the researcher bring out a juicy steak. Too much excitement makes them pass out, he explained. One by one the dogs trot over to the steak, sniff it, start wagging their tails and panting — and then keel over before they can even take a bite. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking to watch. There is a similar trigger in me, I think: I’m attracted to theory, and yet when I get too close to an idea, I freeze up, keel over.
I want to return to that Barnett Newman quote. I’ve repeated it so many times, used it as a kind of shorthand for the pointlessness of criticism, but as I say it now, it’s got me thinking: ornithologists protect the wellbeing of birds, and so a bird, whether he knows it or not, is indebted to the ornithologist. Similarly, theorists keep art alive. They have the power to sanctify and legitimize, to help along a fledgling artist who might otherwise get overlooked. Like the blurbs adorning my book.
What is your relationship to music? Your knowledge of it greatly enriches the novel.
I spent a good portion of my youth convinced I was destined to become the 21st century’s greatest composer. It’s laughable when I say it out loud, slightly embarrassing, but I can remember sitting alone in my room with a small book that chronicled the life and works of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg — it was, I believe, just excerpted sections from the Grove’s Dictionary — and daydreaming this very thing. At the end of each section was a timeline of each composer’s works, and I remember at the age of fifteen or sixteen imagining myself into that book, coming up with my own timelines: In 1988 I will write my first string quartet, in 1992 a woodwind quintet, and so on. I’d create lists, complete with opus numbers. Schoenberg and his students were doing truly groundbreaking things and there was something about this that I liked. I wanted to be groundbreaking. I wanted future music historians to define the coming century by my arrival on the scene: Pre-Hacker and Post-Hacker.
This came, I think in part, out of a deep insecurity. I played piano, but only began dedicating myself seriously to it at fourteen and fifteen. On Saturdays I went to a prep school for young musicians and virtually everybody there was younger and more advanced than me. And better at practicing. I practiced very badly. And so I think I was groping for a way to set myself apart from all these prodigies. I took a composition class, and was taken on by a private teacher, a doctoral candidate, and worked diligently enough at it to get myself into the composition program at the University of Michigan.
Regarding classical music and theory and innovation, I remember being sad to learn that Satie was mocking his forebears in playing a coda over and over again in a piece, what was it called? [Checks Wikipedia.] “Le fils des étoiles: Wagnérie kaldéene, du Sar Péladan.” I think I was sad because of how gorgeous his sincere work is. In that way, I think of Arthur’s end to a musical career as an insult and a disgrace and yet I understand his impulse.
I had a similar disappointment about Satie! I was learning a piece of his called, [checks Wikipedia] here it is: “Embryons desséchés,” which I thought sounded lovely, a lovely name for a lovely piece — only to learn some weeks later that it meant “desiccated embryos.” How strange that he would have thought this a fitting name for the piece. Maybe the music didn’t sound lovely to people the way it does now? Time changes the way art is heard and viewed.
Now that we’re on that period in Paris, I’m thinking of those salons, how people were shocked by Monet. Can you imagine anything lovelier than those magic hour paintings? How could anybody have been shocked by them? I’m interested in this kind of disconnect, between intention (artist) and reception (audience).
Satie often employed purposefully shocking, or even stupid, titles for his pieces. But at least “Embryons” is one of the gorgeous ones. The coda piece, Le fils des étoiles, is not good. It’s just theoretical in its mocking. Monet, I think, was actually trying to do something beautiful, as opposed to “shock” or “mock.” So the reception was in opposition to his intent. That’s a big difference.
That’s a good point. I forget that the avant garde aren’t all like Satie — some “shocking” art was made by people who didn’t think they were doing anything particularly shocking. Now I’m thinking of an anecdote I heard about Kafka, how when he would read in public, he would make himself laugh, the implication that he thought his work was comedic.
I think Kafka is hilarious! When I read him in high school, I took him very seriously; then I reread him in my twenties and laughed and laughed.
I sometimes feel like writing is trying to touch something with a pair of heavy gloves on. You only have the vaguest sense of the way things feel. Or maybe it’s the anxiety of someone speaking a foreign language, not sure if the words you’re speaking mean what you think they mean, or if they are going to hit their mark. I know how I feel about this or that character — and I’d like to convey that sense to a reader — but I have no idea if the words I’m using are going to do the trick. In part it’s the amount of time you spend with the words. A rush of emotion (or something) brings them into existence, and then you prune and prune them, maybe have somebody help you, and then you prune some more, and after a while the words are like gibberish, saying a phrase over and over to the point of meaninglessness.
I find it very difficult to look back on my books or stories. I’m very good at letting go. Once I’m done with a project, I sort of want nothing to do with it for a long time, at least. At a certain point, I can look back on it as maybe an artifact of a different time in my life, but even then it’s sometimes painful. I remember reading that Lorrie Moore would pick up copies of her book in a bookstore and make revisions with a pen in them.
How funny! And totally fitting — her sentences are such tightly coiled things, I can imagine her endlessly winding and winding and winding them up, unable to stop herself.
The narrator in your book is sort of a loser — living at home, working at a movie theater and trying to make a film with a couple of men like him, dubious of their own talent. Again, the idea of the importance of art is brought up but in a humorous way. What are your feelings of pretentiousness in art? Of people unaware of their lack of talent or limitations to make something “worthy”?
It has always been a deep anxiety of mine that what I’m doing is too limited or not particularly worthwhile. And pretentiousness is something I am very sensitive to as well. I have a mother who, as I say, is a painter. She studied at Cooper Union, got her MFA, worked as an art teacher. My father, on the other hand, came from a working class family, never graduated high school, and was quite conflicted about art. He enjoyed photography, had a darkroom in our apartment, and even exhibited his work now and then. He was an avid fan of jazz and he played guitar in his spare time. But his taste was quite narrow, and he was deeply suspicious of art for art’s sake. Art should bring pleasure. Period. That’s where his definition began and ended. I’d bring home recordings of the composers I was learning about in school — Stockhausen or Xenakis — and I’d have to turn them off after a few seconds. Which, you know, fair enough. This is very challenging music. But it was a challenge my father was clearly not up to. He’d make a “jerking off” gesture at any art he believed was too full of itself. Which came from a feeling, I think, that the art was being aimed over his head, perhaps purposely so. It made him defensive, like he was the butt of a joke he wasn’t in on.
My mother on the other hand: I once made her a mix tape with a bunch of new music on it — and she went out and bought every Kronos Quartet recording ever made, and listens to them when she paints! Schnittke, Cage, Crumb, you name it. She’s been to the Bang on a Can Festival three years in a row. She’s an incredibly adventurous listener. So I think to some degree I feel pulled between these two poles: part of me desires to be exuberantly inventive, but I’m always looking over my own shoulder to make sure I’m not excluding anyone.
Paula Bomer is the author of Nine Months (Soho Press) and the collection Baby and Other Stories (Word Riot Press). Her second collection, Inside Madeleine, is forthcoming from Soho Press. She grew up in South Bend, Indiana and now lives in New York. (Full Stop interviewed Bomer earlier this year.)