In trying to track the lineage of CE, a B, some reviewers refer to Pynchon and Barth - the latter not to be confused with Roland. The Pynchon comparison eludes me. Barth I get, but I'm weary of the tendency to cry Barth or Barthelme whenever something spreads even the slightest odor of smarty-pantsness.
Still, it's like staring into a cradle and trying to extract some heriditary coherence from the pink blur. Any guess is as good as the next one. It largely depends on what side of the family you're from. And what body part you zoom in on.
I'd go with Mark Leyner, perhaps even Stefan Themerson.
Where would you place both CE, a B and yourself? Any fathers that needed icing? Mothers you just couldn't keep your eyes off? The odd sibling with whom you wanted to perform unsavoury deeds?
Flappy ears and wide nostrils are dead giveaways. But are there hereditary treats on a less discernable level? Let's say syntactic or lexical? Small, quirky little features that you picked up along the way? Things you secretly hope no one can attribute, things you weren't really aware of yourself until you revisited dad and realized that the way he places his feet when he walks is unsettlingly similar to your own?
The question of author influence never seems to get this treatment, but it’s really no less interesting that author intent, or perhaps meaning, rather, in that it can really depend more on what the reader has previously consumed than inquiring the same of the writer. We take such different things from our favourite authors, and so one reader’s perceived literary genealogy is bound to be much different than the next reader’s, and thus also different from the perceived literary genealogy (which may not be any more valid) of the author. For example, almost everyone I talk to about my own writing names someone I’ve never even heard of, like (in your case) Themerson (I read his kids book about the table a few weeks ago in a shop, but didn’t even know he wrote novels for adults until you just forced me to look him up). Jason Boog said Mark Twain, which was probably the most shocking to me, although I’ve certainly not read enough to know if the comparison is unjust or not. And Steven Moore said Proust.
Has someone mentioned that I write like Barth? I’d find that surprising, too, although in this case my surprise is a more educated one because I’ve read a lot of Barth. Maybe even all of it. I had a phase in my early 20s. Pynchon is something you have to expect when you write a dense, non-linear book, especially in North America, and I like half of Pynchon a lot, but I also feel like his multiple voices are more aimed at chaos while I’m using multiple voices to get at the singularity of life. But Barth? He’s way more focused than I am, for one. Even when he writes a long book, they seem to be about one thing. People ask me what my books are about, and I typically just answer “Life.” I also think he’s a little goofier and more “postmodern,” which I realize is a problematic descriptor to use because everyone means something different by it. I think when I use it in this case I just mean goofier again, overly self-reflexive and deconstructive. I used to try to break my stories down, but now I’m just looking for new ways to build them up.
So what makes someone an influence? What you read a lot of? Encyclopedia Brown books, then, and The Encyclopedia Britannica. I read a lot of Piers Anthony in high school, which may account for my love of puns. Mark Leyner is another interesting one (and one I haven’t heard yet nor expected to hear, unlike Robert Coover, from whom I probably acquired this tendency to do long asides in parentheses), because he’s also an author I’ve read a lot of. And I think I learned a lot from the kinetics of his sentences. But so much of his humour seems to rely on pop culture, something that I’ve actually tried to excise from my work as much as possible. My first novel, The Inactivist, contained a lot of pop culture references, with a conceit that involved the spokescharacters of companies as their CEOs, so Capn Crunch, for example, is in all of the ads because he’s the guy who runs the place, like an egomaniacal used car salesman. But then I began to feel that pop references can make your book seem hip and attuned to your times, but eventually people aren’t going to understand the real reference, and then it’s all about how you structure your sentences, trying to convey the meaning behind the name even if you don’t know the name, at which point you might as well just make up the references, anyway, which is what I typically do now. The novel I’m currently writing is about someone going through the book collection of a dead parent, with each chapter devoted to a different book. Sometimes I describe the plot, sometimes I go into author biography or critical reception or its influence on the genre, but in all cases the books and authors (and a lot of the other cultural references are entirely invented. I use these opportunities to do something you mentioned in the intro to this conversation, something I need a catchy name for, where I use a character’s name as a sort of searchable pun, giving them names that, if you want to continue the book experience online, can add another level of meaning or even just a laugh. I’ve always written this way, and in the beginning I was talked about them as “jokes no one will ever get.” But now people have an insatiable thirst for knowledge and an unlimited supply of water, so sometimes people will look up (going back to <em>CE, aB</em>) Anthony Gillis and see the context of my choice as a Field Colour painter, or the porn star Israel Baline, which was the birthname of Irving Berlin, and all of the characters film titles are names of Berlin songs.
But perhaps that’s not what you see in Leyner at all, or me, or in our confluence. And who’s to say I’m any more correct than you are? Honestly, if I had to say it for myself, I think my lineage is more European, definitely coming out of the French tradition of long, encyclopedic sentences, like Proust and Celine and Huysmans and Perec, but I likely arrived there through the influence of some obscure Canadian authors who has read much more of that than I had at the time: Ray Smith and Lawrence Garber. Both of them are essentially non-existent here. I don’t think Garber has any more books in print, and Smith, though publishing his first book in the late sixties, is just now seeing his work get republished. His novel from 1974, <em>Lord Nelson Tavern</em>, is genius.
I also love Thomas Hardy and am attracted to a similar sense of tragedy, living with it, dealing with it, obsessing over it, that this is the essence of life, especially when it come to our own memories of ourselves. He also writes great sentences. And I know the direction of this last book was shaped, at various points, by reading Don Carpenter, Cormac McCarthy, Faulkner, Queneau, Gaddis. Other writers that seem to jump top of mind from before this book: Jeanette Winterson, Katherine Dunn, William Gass, William Vollmann, Janet Frame, Paul Auster... All of them (and I’m sure I’m forgetting or leaving out tons) are painters, obsessed more with the feeling and flow than the plot. I think I’ve likely grabbed pieces from all of them.