Bruce Bauman is a writer, a creator of two exceptional novels beginning with And The Word Was, a panoramic examination of grief and loss. Within these pages is the story of Dr. Neil Downs and his wife Sarah, a painter whose star is beginning to rise. They are the parents of a smart and wily teenaged son who is killed at school in a Columbine-style shooting. The catastrophic loss sends them reeling and is coupled with Sarah’s confession of infidelity, a double whammy. Neil decides the solution is to travel to a land far away, someplace where he knows not a soul and the world is unknown. He decides on India.
Amidst this vast landscape Neil finds himself in an emotional and geographical landscape so foreign to himself that he has no choice but to attempt an unraveling of the trauma he and his wife have suffered. It’s a riveting transformation filled with descriptions of landscape and psyche.
Bauman’s second novel, Broken Sleep, published late in 2015, depicts mourning and loss on a different scale. The book’s hero, Moses Teumer, is in need of a bone marrow transplant for an aggressive form of leukemia. His father is missing and the woman who raised him is not his birth mother. A fruitful search reveals that his father is a Nazi sympathizer, currently residing in another country while his birth mother, one Avant-Garde artist named Salome Savant, is quirky and lacking in motherly love for her ailing son. Salome came of age artistically with a happening she performed in Central Park during the 1960s. A friend of Salome’s named Art was in ill health, having attempted suicide twice and came to her for help. Salome created a plexi-glass cage for her friend, the center piece for her Central Park happening titled Art Is Dead. Art enters the plexi-glass cage and once a crowd has gathered, presses a button and explodes. It is needless to say, a controversial piece but one that makes a name for Salome at the beginning of her career. Such is the state of Moses Teumer’s parentage.
As Moses attempts to know his mother and track his missing father, he uncovers previously unknown facets of his “real” family. Moses discovers he has a half-brother named Alchemy, a famous rock musician and front man for a band called the “Insatiables.” Alchemy adds fervor to his half-brother’s pitch as they begin the search for Nazi dad. What commences is a journey of mourning for what might have been and never was. Just as Neil Downs was running away in Bauman’s first novel, Moses is attempting to run toward something, an apparition which he hopes might materialize and save his life. In this way, Bauman’s two novels intertwine as they juxtapose feelings of loss for what was and wasn’t.
Bauman has written extensively on art and was an editor of the late great Black Clock Magazine.
He and I talked online and on the phone recently to discuss the relationships between his two books and the state of art in general.
David Breithaupt: Is there a driving spark that begins your novel writing process, maybe an emotion, place, line or just the time and space to do it?
Bruce Bauman: It’s ten years since the publication of And The Word Was and I gave answers to this question then—but never these answers.
I always said, and it was true, that the driving spark was to update the child sacrifice myths — Abraham and Isaac, Prince Prahlad and his father and sister, Castor and Pollux, and so on. In the case of the Levi Furstenblum character, I wanted to explore what it would be like to be a Holocaust survivor.
But the deeper drives came from these two things.
When I was around 10 or 11, in Hebrew School in Flushing, one day, as I and a few other kids came out of the building a bunch of assholes about 15 or 16 years old started shooting dart guns at us yelling “Die you fucking Jews!” Mostly they missed. My teacher at the time (a very, very tough survivor, he was probably in his late forties), the custodian (a very big black guy), and an Israeli woman who was a visiting teacher (she was gorgeous by the way, and all us boys had a crush on her) who had been in the army came storming out at these guys, maybe there were six or seven of them. And they took off. They caught one of them and dragged him inside. I’m not sure what they did or said to the guy, but those fuckers never came back. So, I think that was lodged in my unconscious and came out in the idea of the school shootings.
At almost every reading I did for Word I was asked if I had a child who died. My answer was no. Which is true. But my wife had a number of miscarriages and I think that grief played into the grief so obvious in Neil and Sarah.
I visited Dachau when I was in my late 20s and I was disgusted by the film they showed and the reactions of some people around me. There was a scene in the film of the American troops rolling into Germany. One German woman said to me, “Thanks for liberating us.” And I yelled back, “From who? The fucking Martians who had taken control of most Germans and Austrians?” And then there were all the Holocaust deniers. Those things led to Furstenblum’s story in And the Word Was, “Chambers of Commerce.” I like to think in Broken Sleep, Moses attending the Furstenblum conference on forgiveness links some of underpinning themes expressed in both novels.
For Broken Sleep I’d had the idea of the “Insatiables” as a band for decades, and that had come to me in a dream. But the line that opens BS, “I am large, I consume multitudes,” that came to me when I was just riffing with friends one day. I knew it had to open the book and that the idea of appetite in all forms, drawing on my limited understanding of Aristotle’s ideas of appetite and what makes up tragedy and applying it to present day America, would be an important theme. So Salome has to open the book, quoting that line from her son, Alchemy. For me, all of that set the tone for the entire novel.
I also think the following song lyrics, which I’d been compiling for years, are very important:
Irony and pity/Oh so witty
A little Aristotle/in a bottle
The son not only rises/it also surprises
I had that lyric very early on, but it doesn’t appear until much later in the book. It refers to a chapter in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises with Jake and Bill singing “Irony and pity,” a kind of three word distillation of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. Along with the reversing of the Biblical Moses story line, Moses born a Jew and raised by an Egyptian into one where my Moses is raised by a Jewish mother only later in life to find out his father was a Nazi. The idea of what it means to be Jew is something that I’ve tried to understand, well, since I was in Hebrew school (which I hated by the way).
You know, if someone asks me this question in ten years, I may have a really different answer. Cause in the end, who the hell knows where any inspiration comes from. It’s damn mysterious.
My question was inspired by what I felt was a link of emotion in your two books. Though different in tone, there was mourning through loss in both. In your first, parents mourn a child, in your second, characters yearn for what they never had (real parents, sanity, a sense of completion). I wondered if such feelings were a force which fed your fiction.
Wow, I never put it together in such a way, but yes, that is true. A couple of astute and close friends of mine have said for years the word I use most often is ‘sad.’ Obviously, the answer is yes, but it was not conscious. I made the conscious choice that Broken Sleep was going to be tonally, at least in parts, funnier than Word. My hope is that some, not all, of the characters grow and become bigger people because of their losses, their inability to undo the wrongs and failures of the past.
In Word, Neil will never overcome his inability to save his son, and though he is still a mournful character at the end of the book, he is much wiser and a little more hopeful, I think. Sarah remains lost and wounded probably beyond repair. In BS, I think Mindswallow goes through the greatest transformations, he’ll always be a bit of a jerk, but by the end he has learned quite a bit and understands that he has to bear some responsibility for his actions and reactions, and he has changed much for the better. Moses goes through many transformations — good and bad — with each new revelation about his past. And Jay I think is quietly, despite a blip here and there, the mainstay of stability and growth from the vicissitudes of life that she and Moses face.
I think that the way my characters deal with and learn from experience, their losses can make them either bitter or better people. More generous and bigger hearted or angrier and more selfish. In the end, the longer you live, the more you lose, and in some cases, the more you can gain — we’ve spoken about Kerouac’s use of the phrase ‘peaceful sorrow’ — and personally, I think that is the best we can hope for in life. I suppose that emotion infuses all of my fiction — whether the characters can come to terms with loss and incompletion and attain some semblance of peace or remain broken and lost.
Are happy books unrealistic?
I don’t know the answer to that. Or even how to define a happy book. But as I quickly thought of my favorite novels and the ones that informed me, the answer is very few end happily. But there are endings, say Tropic of Cancer or Hunger, that are in no way “happy” books but have, I think, a less than tragic ending. I think BS has a lot of joy in it, and many books I love have joy within them. Not every great novel has to end with Joseph K dying like a dog, Anna Karenina jumping in front of a train or Dick Diver riding his bicycle alone in some small town after being King of the French Riviera. One of my favorite endings to a very dark work is Rilke’s Duino Elegies:
And we, who have always thought
of happiness climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles
when happiness falls.
That’s my idea of a realistic happy book.
Your book Broken Sleep does have a lot of joy in it amidst some sorrow and that I think is why it stuck so close to me. Going back to Kerouac’s term ‘peaceful sorrow,’ and we will move on from sadness after this, do you think there is joy in sorrow? As I grow older I feel as though there is some joy in my mid-life melancholy. Maybe I am a happy depressive.
Bear with me here and I’ll bring this back to your question and the book. While contemplating this question I listened to the song “Sorrow.” The original by the McCoys, the biggest hit by the Merseys, Bowie’s cover version, and then The Beatles “It’s All too Much,” one of my favorite Harrison songs, where at the end he sings the lyric ‘with your long blond hair and your eyes are blue…” which is from “Sorrow.” And the songs didn’t bring me joy, but brought some smiles and well, sorrow. I remembered one time when I was in my mid-20s, I was in the hospital because I was having a serious bout of Ulcerative Colitis, for a 10 day regimen of IV Cortisone, the worst drug in the world. And I was sitting in bed all IV’d up and my friends were all doing coke and getting drunk and playing music — (my doc had arranged a private room at no extra cost because he was a big shot), and everyone was kinda having fun — and “Sorrow” came on the radio. People started singing along and then getting sad and my girlfriend started crying — she knew we were going to break up soon and we did. And another friend and his girlfriend started arguing. And now, as I was “remembering” that time it was just like I was there again.
Salome doesn’t believe in linear time and she is often experiencing the past and the future as if it’s the present. And in some ways I don’t accept linear time either. Sure, I show up early for classes and lunches and all that shit — but in my head when I go into that space of no-time zone, and it’s from there that I write — thirty years ago is now, and all the heavy duty emotions I felt in that hospital room are as present and viscerally alive as they were then. And when I come back out of my head, and sit here typing, I can reflect and see how silly and obnoxious and messed up we all were — and I’d say I can feel a rueful tranquility. But joy, no, not for me. But when I leave my head and come back to “time,” the sorrow now is that I’m older and can’t repeat that experience. I can be joyous. And I can be melancholic. I can’t be both together.
You talked about using the child sacrifice myth in you first book, which had me thinking about fiction vs non-fiction. Do you think fiction can tell a story in a more accurate way than non-fiction? How do you feel about historical fiction?
Let me begin by referencing something Leslie Fiedler once told me: there are bad books, good books and (a very few) great books. And when it comes to the immortals, categories don’t matter. Specifically, let’s use the Bible. For thousands of years most people took it as literal fact, as non-fiction. Today there are still many people who consider it so. I consider it the greatest novel ever written. And written by a number of different people — the OT by four different people who scholars have assigned letters. Who knows how many people wrote the NT, but the King James version, a translation of a translation of a translation, is brilliant and beautiful. No matter how you categorize it, and I consider myself a Jewish atheist, I believe it has more “truth” in it than any book I’ve ever read. And it’s not even close.
More importantly, I don’t believe in objective truth. We construct truth-pacts as friends, families, co-workers, lovers — and that is how we exist. When these truths are exposed as untruths, then the relationships fail or a new truth-pact is made. In my novels, I hope this happens all the time. In Broken Sleep Moses formulated his General Principle of Livability: Hope plus Need minus Denial equals your Livability Quotient.
As a reader, my favorite fiction is not based on whodunit, but why they dunit. Raymond Chandler is a great writer not because of his plots or who did it (some of the time you don’t know and neither did he), but because he wrote about the mysteries of the human condition and wrote about it beautifully. He’s Dostoevsky with a detective’s Fedora.
So the truth of nonfiction is not a universal truth. When I teach Contemporary Non-fiction I assign Tobias’ Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception. They’re both good books. They’re brothers and one was primarily raised by the mom and the other by the father. They portray the father in roughly the same way but not at all the mother. There are three instances where they talk about the same occurrence. And their perceptions are quite different and they have a huge difference in import to each of them. Their perceptions are honest, and that is a kind of truth. But that is different I think than the deeper truth the best fiction can offer.
The country’s obsession with the true, its preference for non-fiction over fiction is symptomatic of two things — a lack of cultural imagination and a fear of the unknown. As if nonfiction can make you feel at ease and the world a safe place if you can KNOW this world. It’s not and you can’t.
To be very blunt, and this observations might piss people off, anything you can do in non-fiction, you can do in fiction. The reverse is not, um… true. And every good fiction writer I know can write good non-fiction. Again, the reverse is not true.
What influence do you think, say, the last ten years of technology (Internet, twitter, Snapchat, etc.) have had on novel reading?
“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”
That is George Orwell from his essay “Politics and the English Language” in 1946.
If Orwell were alive now there are many reasons I think he’d have an immediate massive stroke — Donald Trump’s mere existence — but reading a few emails or tweets would probably cause his brain to explode. I think technology has changed the ways novels are read, but could also change how they are written and written language in general. As Alchemy talks about in BS the Internet, the computer is the most revolutionary invention since the printing press when it comes to communication — and we’re in its infancy and no one knows what the outcome will be. Salome hates all forms of social media and what she calls nano-communications. I bet she’d hate emojis. And I do too. They take away from subtly and the writers’ skill of giving words sound and voice of what the written word can mean. The writer’s job is to allow the reader to interpret what a simple phrase, for example “oh yeah,” connotes. Is the writer being sarcastic, pissed off, are they acknowledging they forgot what their correspondent meant, or just saying it with a shrug that means “I’m bored.”
Reading a novel takes time, and a long novel takes a very long time. And great novels should be read more than once. I think the imminent threat is to the writing of novels. I’d like to see an analysis of the vocabulary most people use on the net. Of course, twitter and other forms reduce your options. If Orwell thought the language was in trouble 80 years ago, I wonder what he’d think now.
American English is different than English English. Orwell didn’t like the use of foreign phrases. I think American English benefits from absorbing so many foreign words and phrases. It’s an extension of our multi-ethnic culture and what can make the language and our culture so expansive and extends our ability to evolve. But if the sloppiness, the laziness that I see in emails, vetted and edited articles, Facebook and other social media continue — and I am as guilty as anyone in writing lazy, uncorrected emails — then it will doubtlessly change the writing and reading of novels and any serious literature.
Another problem is speed. The net has changed the way we are viewed and how we view time. A lot of book clubs reject long books because they can’t possibly read it in a month. That’s ridiculous. Reading books should be savored and not eaten like a McDonalds’ meal or read and discarded like a tweet. And the same goes for writing a novel or any book — take your time. Don’t let anyone or “societal pressures” rush you.
Will technology be more positive or negative for literature and literacy? We’re still in the early stages of the digital revolution, and I don’t really know the answer to the question.
You’ve written about and known painters for many years. Your wife is an established painter. What influence have the fine arts had on your writing?
It’s been both subtle and blunt, but large in obvious ways — Sarah is an artist in And The Word Was and Salome is in Broken Sleep.
I started going to the SoHo galleries mainly ‘cause that’s where the good looking women were. The women ignored me so I started looking at and studying the art. I’d never been to an art museum until maybe I was 17. In my early 20s, one of my many jobs was working at an ad agency on 56th and 6th, so I’d often go to MOMA at my lunch hour. I got to know one of the guards so he’d let me sneak in for free. I’d study one painting for the entire hour, a Pollock, a Dubuffet, a Mondrian. Pollack especially — looking at a piece of his for an hour was like seeing what my brain felt like on a canvass. This was the dark ages, way before the net so I’d go to the library and read up on the artist. And when I later worked in a bookstore I’d spend my time reading many art books. Also, when I was 25 I lived in Paris in a cold water, bathroom-in-the-hallway chambre de bonne for a year and I worked for a loony toon American art dealer, but I learned an awful about art from her and her friends and also began to learn about the horror that is the art business/gallery/museum world.
Also, at that time, I’d read that Hemingway had studied the Impressionists in the Jeu de Paume and used their ideas for the opening pages of A Farewell to Arms to get the feel of hearing the bombs in the background and write impressionistically. Quite inventive really, and the best pages of the book too.
And in some ways what influenced me, unconsciously at the time, was the collage — Schwitters, Rauschenberg and Cornell (btw, he was from Flushing), and an essay by Umberto Eco on collage as a form. And the early novels of John Dos Passos (Yeah, yeah, I know almost no one reads him now and he went from very left to very right wing), which are nonlinear and collagist in form. In some ways I consider BS an abstract collage, if that makes sense. If you stick with it, the multiple story lines, which may seem disconnected at first, and the vocally dissimilar narrators, and the seemingly odd friendships — all found in a Cornell-like box of a book — comes together once it clicks in the reader’s head to form a cohesive whole, I hope.
Watching my wife paint is an ethereal experience. She’s invented her own Gravity Easel. She experiments with new techniques all the time. She never wants to repeat herself. But what I learned most from her is dedication. I’m kind of a lazy fuck who could read books, watch sports and old movies for the rest of my life —which is what I did quite often for the first 30 years of my life. Except for taking nice vacations she wants to work and always has. We’ve learned from each other not to give a shit about what the art or literary world is focusing on. Just follow your own vision and enjoy making art.
Now, as to the art world, I think it’s one screwed up place. Doug Christmas may be infamous for being a crook, Gagosian for being a tax evader, or the Marlborough Gallery for the way they ripped off Rothko — but as far I’m concerned that is usual behavior, just on a larger scale. Jed Perl had an essay in the NYRB on Koons (who is total non-artist in my worldview) and the art world that nails it.
But my final statement is this — one of the purest joys and saving grace feelings in life is experiencing a work of art that changes me, that emotionally and intellectually makes life worth living and that stays with me forever.
William Burroughs used to say writing was thirty years behind painting. Do you agree?
That may have been true in the 50s and 60s, not any more. There is precious little innovative painting these days. I went to the Venice Biennial last year — very little painting and most of it was mediocre to shitty. “Bad Painting” is a thing these days. There are even shows with that title. Imagine a publisher with an imprint called “Bad Books.” They may publish them but at least they don’t advertise it.
If anything, one might think that could be said about video or installation art. But it wouldn’t be true. Many years ago Pauline Kael wrote about Kostner’s Dances with Wolves and called it Plays with Camera. That applies to the vast majority of ‘video art’ these days. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few unbelievably beautiful and innovative works of art at the Biennial that made seeing the rest of that blah shit worthwhile.
Pound’s “Make it New” (and yes, I know he probably ripped that off from a Chinese poet), is smart and right, but “Make it new and make it great” should be the phrase. The 50s- mid-70s was a special time in all the arts — painting, literature, movies and music for a combination of sets of circumstances — where art and commerce, almost magically were one. Culturally, we’ve been hindered by that period for the last 40 years. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been great works of art during these years, there are always geniuses at work, but two hundred years from now I am certain that brief time will be looked at as an incredibly fertile artistic period on all fronts.
As I mentioned before and speak about a bit in BS, we are in the embryonic stages of the digital or binary revolution or whatever it will end up being called, and we have not had our binary Picasso, Chaplin, Martha Graham, Welles, Joyce or Robert Johnson yet. Those innovators opened the doors to the floodgates where an astounding number of truly talented and unique artists flourished artistically and commercially a generation later. It hasn’t happened yet in this era, but whether it’s five or 25 years from now, it will happen — if we don’t blow ourselves up before then.
Do you have any favorite authors you have outgrown?
I wouldn’t say authors but certain books of authors. When I was 21 I thought Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and The Trial were the greatest books I’d ever read. Over the years, The Magic Mountain has gotten less great. I think it’s a book you should read in your early 20s. I think it’s essential to any serious writer’s education. But there are certain books I have grown into. Now I think Dr. Faustus is his masterpiece.
In my teens I read every book I could find of Kerouac’s. Now, I’d say I only truly value On The Road, Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels. But he is also best read when you are young.
The Trial is another um, case. I still love it. But my favorite Kafka book is now The Diaries. They are not diaries in any conventional sense. It’s as much fiction as anything else. He even gets his own age wrong. There are stories and little bits of wisdom, as well as intense self-loathing and despair, and many jokes and funny asides, comments on other writers and writing, and every page is filled with most precise language of searing insight into human behavior. It’s my Bible.
Hemingway— now all I can read is The Sun Also Rises and some short stories. Everything after that gets increasingly simplistic and almost dumb. The Old Man and The Sea, geeze, I can’t believe that was written by the same guy who wrote Sun.
In preparation for writing BS, I re-read a bunch of “long” novels and they all stood up.
Even in my 20s I was not a huge fan of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. I guess, in maybe my late 20s, early thirties, I read Lotte in Weimer, Thomas Manns’s book on Goethe, which is pretty interesting. But then I reread Elective Affinities and realized that novel is genius and may be the first great modern novel.
The most notable is Salinger. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, he was a hero. Now, Teddy, A Perfect Day for Bananafish and Seymour: An Introduction are the only things that don’t feel precious or immature. A bunch of the others make me wince. Mailer had a great line about Salinger — “The greatest mind that never left prep school.”
There are so many great writers still to be read by me. It’s important to me that I say this: In my almost 15 years of teaching grad writing students, they don’t read enough classic fiction. They read the ‘special of the day,’ Great to read Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy — they are two terrific writers — but you must also read Faulkner, Virginia Wolff and Joyce too. And say William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. They exemplify “Make it New. Make it great.” That is the artists’ assignment, and if you haven’t read the old Hall of Famers, how can you make it new?
What happens after you finish a novel? What is in your planning book, another novel? Disney World? A general hiatus?
First, there are degrees of “finish.” But if you mean after the editing is done and then you are waiting for the release… After Word, I went right into Broken Sleep.
Now, I’m messing with many things. I’ve kept a “diary” since I was 14 or so. I have over thirty of them. Dreams, ideas, notes on people. Traveling. Fantasies. Lots of whining. Never meant for publication. I hadn’t done much of that the last few years but I’m back at that again.
For decades, I’ve had the idea for three novels. And I’ve been scribbling bits of that third one but I haven’t gotten far. Liberty Persuasion, Dada Dao Dao and Benji Calmes — three of the main characters — have been relatively quiet lately. I need some time, which I haven’t had, to get to a colony for 6 weeks or more. I’ve gotten both my previous novels going at colonies and I need that space now to see if it will take off and if I want to do it.
There was another part to Broken Sleep that is narrated by Persephone called The Apocraphy Diaries. I have some pages but I’m not happy with it. Takes place in 2050.
I’ve been doing sports pieces, which are easy and fun. And a little Sidonna Cherry detective stuff. And other, shorter articles.
My wife and I also did some traveling which we’d been planning for 5 years and hadn’t had time to do. Five weeks in Europe, which was glorious and we’d like to do more.
More reading which is hard with writing, editing and teaching.
And promo for BS, which causes me internal conflicts because sometimes I enjoy it and other times it causes me an immense amount of self-loathing. I know I’m damn lucky to have written a book that a few people really like. And I love talking about art and literature and film, and love my books, but I despise being a car salesman for my work, which it seems is almost necessary these days. I’m doing my best. I’m not sure I want to go through the whole post-writing process ever again. I’m not that well balanced.
But, and this is crucial—I will always, always write. I do not feel some compelling need to publish. I went many years without publishing and I can do so again. Of course, I’d welcome acclaim but the world will not notice or care if I never publish another word. My aim: to find what brings me closest that elusive ‘peaceful sorrow’.
David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.