Emily Hall’s The Longcut makes urgent the question of what it is us artists think we’re doing. Written in feverishly explosive sentences that careen through the mundanity of an office job, the sublimity of art, the anxiety of art-making, and the unbroken and constantly recursive stream of how these things intersect, Hall’s narrator obsesses over what might look for one brief moment like a simple question that is in fact worth many, many pages of agony: of what her art is. The mental map she attempts to sketch toward an answer is non-Euclidean if it has any mappable geometries at all, but for us, the readers, it is a pleasure to be this lost.
Kyle Williams: To start, I’m curious how long you worked on this book. I couldn’t really decide while reading if it felt more like something that had been assembled very slowly over many years or if you flew through as a tour-de-force in a few weeks, or something.
Emily Hall: The first draft was a brainwave for sure. Once I understood what I wanted to do I could do it. I wrote it at top speed, my mind way ahead of my pen, writing notes in the margins that when I returned to them were often nonsense. But it felt absolutely right in a way I hadn’t felt with basically anything I’d written before it. The language for the end came later, during one of the revisions, and that felt like a miracle too: I knew it when I saw it but not before. I’m holding the promise of that moment in my head while I write a new book, like an addict expecting a very long-game hit.
The revisions took much longer, because of time constraints and because I kept getting lost in the process. There were so many uncontrolled versions—handwritten, typed, typed and marked, digital files, half-entered corrections. I’m pretty sure that my failure to stay on top of what is basically admin work added years to the timeline, and I might also add that such a failure of version control in my editing job would be fatal. My editing job would no longer be my editing job.
When I read The Longcut now I’m fully aware of how much revision went into it, layers of revisions, networks of usage that affected every sentence in the book. My new sentences feel so naked and afraid by comparison.
Can I ask where the image of this egg came from? This marble-or-something egg that our narrator keeps on the windowsill of her temporary desk at her very boring job, catching the different light—it’s a really entrancing image. I wondered if there was something found about it.
Okay, in fact there’s a real egg. Or was, I don’t know where it is now. It was one of those gifts that felt like a job: There it was on the shelf, it took up space, it got dusty, I didn’t know what it was for. It was a terrible paperweight. It just kept rolling off the desk. But there was something particular to how much it annoyed me. Certainly I had other ambiguous objects in my life. I didn’t and don’t need to adhere to William Morris’s rule—keep nothing that isn’t beautiful or useful. But this one went deep for some reason, and then it immediately jumped up when I was casting around for an object that would frustrate the narrator and which might disorganize the world around it. I wonder if it’s in that box in storage marked “no need to open.”
Let’s not get caught up in the question of autofiction, though.
I think a lot through the various studies of Everyday Life—Lefebvre’s Critique of, then de Certeau’s Practice of. I’m tempted to say The Longcut could be subtitled something like The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. In a book so full of the mundane and the quotidian, how were you thinking about the sometimes or seeming tensions between impulses toward the everyday or the mimetic and then the artistic or aesthetic? The gallerist asks this question that I think is just hilarious, “How on earth did this interesting project veer into dullness?” But I love the dullness. A lot of good happens there.
This is partly a function of the question of time, too, right? Of mundane time being the only time?
For me—if I’m understanding the question—there isn’t much tension between the everyday and the artistic/aesthetic. Anything can be a subject for art, for either aesthetic or conceptual consideration.
The Longcut has been a kind of curious inkblot or antenna for people’s feelings about art. Some find the narrator’s projects pretentious in the extreme, or not satirical enough. Some find them too silly or mundane to take seriously—her daily photographs of an object at her job, her video of a crane rupturing the severe urban grid—that these aren’t the projects of a real or serious artist. But I often find myself thinking of what Mike Kelley said: “What I dislike about a lot of contemporary artists is they want to be hipsters. They’re not willing to be fools.” To my mind, the silliest and most mundane things—and absolutely the dullest—can startlingly call up the profound, the keenly existential. The question of how I spend my limited time on earth. The question of how I relate myself to a rigid and severe human-made environment. The question of how I might know my elemental self when I encounter it.
Do you find any of that critical theory helpful?
I read theory or philosophy in order to understand something I’m editing, or else because there’s an idea or network of ideas that feels absolutely relevant to my themes and vectors and where I was headed anyway. But my knowledge tends to be pretty shallow: I read around, I partly grasp, I move on. I feel about critical theory like I feel about tarot cards: It gives you a frame inside of which there’s great freedom to move around, outside of which is wildness, which is interesting too. So theory has provided me with different ways to approach the idea of art, of what it is and what it does, which is the question that really interests me.
Do you know what else gives you a frame? Self-help books. Often the frame is horrible, though. My friend Nate Lippens and I are writing a book of advice with that in mind.
Wait, can you tell me more about this book of advice? I could use some advice, probably.
I’ve recently started noticing that I do in fact know some useful things. I realized that now, in my middle age, I finally understand that if you put something black on top of something else that’s black, it will be very hard to find later. I mentioned this to Nate during one of our daylong back-and-forth texts, and we started thinking about what we’ve learned nel mezzo del camin that we wished we’d known earlier, things that are helpful and useful out of all proportion to the size of the gesture. Keep toothpicks handy everywhere, is another. But among the brilliant pithy aphorisms are recursions on those things that can’t be advised, that are ungraspable via self-help. We’re calling it Mean Little Machine, which is how Nate once referred to Twitter, and which I thought brilliant.
I found the class details in this book incredibly evocative, even as I was giving a sort of depressed laugh of recognition to a lot of them—especially “my so-called studio a.k.a. my apartment” and “my studio lighting a.k.a. a clamp light attached to a ledge above the bed” or the categories of funds, available but barely and funds, really quite unavailable. I’ve often felt that lower- or working-class people are disallowed the kind of heady rumination, or even the rich inner life that our narrator exhibits. I’ve often heard theoretical thought as being something inaccessible to lower income brackets, as though we can’t read. How did you navigate that tension, between class and art?
Contempt for the inner lives of the working class is a really dumb misreading of a financial reality. Some of the most insightful writers and artists I know grew up in working-class families, paycheck-to-paycheck families. They take nothing for granted.
What I’ve gleaned over many years of talking to artists about their work and the constraints of their lives and the effect of those constraints on their work is that there never seems to be enough time. If you have money, you can buy time, but earning money eats up time. And if you’re going to ruminate headily, you need the time in which to do it! But I’m not a polemicist—I navigated this—if I can be said to have navigated it—in service of the book. So for The Longcut’s narrator the recursive thought finds its way in around the edges, its urgency drives her enquiry into parts of her life that might not generally be considered subjects for art. Even though much of her day is taken up by her pointless job, we’re not aware of any dependents, chronic conditions, or aging parents, or anything that might really lay claim to her mental time. She has a certain narrow slice of freedom, and she makes a lot out of it.
The sense of a “frame” as you talked about it is really interesting. It sounds like when you’re doing your first draft, you’re interested in that wilderness outside the frame, then, in editing, you’re interested in the frame and the space inside it—of maybe finding a path through the trees, or something, as it were. The possible problem there is whether the frame is helpful or an imposition. The narrator in The Longcut has this constant fear of the “fascistic impulse” that I find really interesting in this regard, as she moves mental objects into various italicized categories but then resists the categories for fear of limiting the objects themselves. Your method of “grasp, then move on” side-steps that—take what’s useful, leave the rest—but I was hoping you could talk a bit about that fascistic impulse. I think Deleuze wrote a lot on this, on fascism as an aesthetic first and a politic second, and on “totalizing” discourses that engorge everything. How do you avoid that in framing? Is it a constant danger requiring constant observation? Does our narrator observe and avoid it successfully?
This is the book’s constant movement, between the chaos and the grid. What is the productive, generative force—something unconstrained being limited, or something rigid being broken apart? I wondered which I would land on as being the more important, and obviously, of course, it’s both. I would have known this right away if I’d thought about it for two minutes, but if I’d thought about it for two minutes, there might not be a book in which I take the long route to finding it out.
My friend Susan Robb has called that state outside the frame “wildness” rather than “wilderness,” and I agree. Maybe I’m resisting the idea of wilderness as something you Westernly triumph over—you cease wandering in the desert, with all that narrative’s religious connotations, and all the strictures that turn order into something to be bludgeoned with. I’m not too interested in forms that don’t hold onto some sense of wildness, even if just under pressure.
I do like a thing that sends me tearing through the internet on the trail of an idea or definition or system or image which then leaves me disorganized in some fundamental way, even if I’m retaining more of a sense of it than detailed fine-grained knowledge. Fine, essentially I’m a dilettante, but what I’m not is a philosopher. I’m not presenting arguments. But what does a British police procedural have to do with an architecture school in South America? What do Dürer’s ornamental flourishes have to do with the Circle of Fifths or the topological morphing of a coffee cup into a donut? This is my territory.
As our narrator is so often committing time theft at work to make or think about making art (and good for her, of course), does this impulse toward art and thought feel somehow anti-capitalist to you? In other scenes, our narrator finds art in a gallery window looking like “so much merchandise on display,” which is the torture, right, of trying to create art in the system we’re in. Is our narrator subversive in that way? And then, for you, how do you survive that torture?
That particular art-making impulse—yes, it is. It subverts something that goes deep, an idea of what we owe the world or what our most useful hours should be spent doing. It proposes a different kind of world, a different kind of authority. Although much of what The Longcut’s narrator does is think—if thinking is time theft, then where are we? Is it even possible for humans to work that way?
I survived the torture by not caring what happened to the book beyond its being written, at least for a time. I can hardly believe this now when I say it—it sounds like the worst kind of posturing. But for a while it was real: By separating myself from the destination of the book in the world, I could get it written.
But I should also say that I’m in the extremely lucky position of being able to support myself through my day job, and so I don’t have to make my art pay. When people suggested I make The Longcut more marketable, I could ignore them. It’s a much much more complicated algebra for a lot of people, and I don’t think universal contempt for so-called selling out is a useful tool.
The way this book ends is really wonderful. I mean, our narrator is running through the streets and shouting Eureka, in a way. And how she gets there, finally, is through a conversation with a friend. This gesture toward community feels so important. We’re deep, deep inside the head of our narrator for the entirety of The Longcut; we feel her anxiety and isolation as she mulls over this question of what her art is. It’s a book on the life of the mind. But the answer, or the direction to new questions, comes both from within and without. Is there a point in the artistic process, for you, where you have to reach out? Where do you see the place for a wider community for a narrator like this one, who is so trapped in herself?
It’s so boring to say this, but I find it both difficult and critical to balance community/reaching out with self-reliance/silence/cunning/exile. Some writers have multiple people read their drafts multiple times, but I don’t know that I could take that much insight and input—actually I do know, I couldn’t. I have one main reader, Nate, and an exceedingly small handful of brilliant interlocutors who can be counted on to draw me out when I’m stuck. I almost cut the narrator’s thought experiment about flinging herself at the lives of other artists. It seemed remote and convoluted and dumb until one of my interlocutors spoke it back to me in a way that helped me see how it was functioning.
I think this works because none of them steer me away from my fundamental sensibility; they don’t advise. It’s more like a shared thinking-through. And it’s good for me to be reminded that reading and writing and art can be social acts as well as personal ones. The narrator’s utopian community probably failed because utopia isn’t a balance, at least as she conceived it—it’s more about order than productive chaos. I would say that the interior/exterior progress for The Longcut’s narrator was that by herself, alone in her head, she produced the sensibility, then the conversation with the friend gave it narrative, which the sensibility then processed and made its own.
Although I more or less knew what the ending would involve (running through the streets with a change of heart), I surprised myself utterly with the use of the word “joy,” a word I never would have guessed would figure in my world view. And the book’s last sentence also surprised me: I didn’t know I was going to write it until I did, and when I did I knew the book was done.
Emily Hall is a novelist, editor, and art critic. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, New York Times Book Review, The Stranger, the zine Redheaded Stepchild, and Socrates on the Beach. The Longcut, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2020 Novel Prize and published in 2022 by Dalkey Archive. She lives in New York, where she was born and raised, and now edits books at The Museum of Modern Art. She is currently working on a new novel; a book of advice with the writer Nate Lippens; and a diagram of a sentence from Thomas Bernhard’s Correction.
Kyle Francis Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn and Austin. He is an MFA Candidate at UT Austin’s Michener Center and Interviews Editor for Full Stop. His fiction has appeared in A Public Space, Southern Humanities Review, and Epiphany, and is forthcoming from Southampton Review and Joyland. He is on Twitter @kylefwill.
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