Register Wednesday | September 19 | 2018

Hitting the Keys

An e-conversation with Christopher Miller

Simon Silber, Christopher Miller’s first novel, centers on an eccentric small-town composer—”unheard and unheard of,” as Miller says—and the sycophantic Norman Fayreweather. Hired by Silber to write hagiography, Norm instead uses the information his employer censors to get back at him—writing his own account, the unofficial life and times of Silber, as liner notes to the composer’s fictional opus.

Miller corresponded by email with editor Derek Webster.

Derek Webster: Simon Silber has a post-modern, Nabokovian look and feel. Reading, however, one finds as much realistic observation culled from daily life as in Melville or Dickens. What kind of a book did you think you were writing?

Christopher Miller: I think the way to answer that is to explain how I came to write the book. My composer started as a minor character in another novel. He was suggested by—not based on, just suggested by—your compatriot Glenn Gould, but I wanted Silber to be not as good at what he did. Not gold but silver. His real talent proved to be for generating action: like no other character I’ve ever directed, he knew what to do in every scene. Soon the Silber stuff outweighed the rest of the (otherwise non-musical) novel I thought I wanted to write, and finally I decided to give him a book of his own. I’m ashamed to say I took another year to settle on the liner-note format, which now seems to me the only conceivable way to tell the story in question.

As for the traditional “novelistic” virtues with which you credit me, I hope you’re right. I wanted a book that would work on as many levels as possible, since my main complaint about the novels I don’t like is that there simply isn’t enough going on. I guess I have a sort of three-ring-circus esthetic, which is arguably a decadent esthetic. But I think that many novelists who experiment with form are hoping to deliver all the pleasures of a conventional novel in addition to whatever special pleasure we may take in their experiments. Nabokov himself is the supreme example: some of his novels have very unorthodox forms, but they also surpass most conventional fiction with regard to traditional virtues like exuberance, attention to physical detail, rendering of inner states, rendering of the texture of time, etc.

DW: Norm is a very complex character. He is called “arrogant, contemptuous, grumpy, haughty, pompous, rude, self-deluded, surly, touchy, unreliable and vain”–yet he can also be pithy and profound! He seems to be an intellectual artist living the wrong life, like Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses.

CM: I’m sure Norm would agree, but it seems unlikely to me that he will ever hit his stride or find the right life for him. Partly just because he insists on seeing himself as the equal of Nietzsche and Joyce. He’d rather nurse his delusions of grandeur in private than figure out what kind of art is actually within his reach.

If Norm sometimes sounds more cogent than he should—well, I think it’s a convention of unreliable narration that the narrators, no matter how buffoonish, are allowed to express themselves improbably well. Partly because of course you as an author want to write as well as you can, no matter who is officially speaking.

There seem to be two kinds of unreliable narrator: the barely literate, like Huckleberry Finn, who nonetheless keep finding just the right words for the tales they’re telling, and the overeducated, overcivilized, and hyperliterate like Kinbote or the narrator of The Good Soldier, Dowell, one of the great first-person buffoons of all time. I’ve always found the Dowells funnier, though the Hucks may be more lovable.

DW: No offense, but are you Norm?

CM: No! Not anymore, at least. Okay, I’ll admit that when I was eighteen, I thought I was the next James Joyce. If I couldn’t be the next James Joyce, why write at all? Since then, though, I’ve been forced to lower my sights. It wasn’t fun, but if I hadn’t done so, it’s safe to say I never would’ve written a readable book.

DW: Norm and Silber are both very concerned with posterity, and their place in it—perhaps because both suspect they won’t have one. Many authors seem drawn to writing about the failure of artists. Why were you?

CM: I think it’s a kind of superstitious behavior—hoping to ward off the fate you dread for yourself by delegating it to your characters. Making fun of Norm and Silber was a painless way to make fun of myself and my own grandiosity—and no one writes a novel without at least a streak of grandiosity. The book enabled me to look at my own delusions in a series of sidelong glances, since they wouldn’t be delusions if they let me look them in the eye.

DW: Yes, the life of the artist seems utterly de-romanticized, a grueling, groveling crawl in circles of anonymity. But how come? What do you think of the artist’s life?

CM: Silber and Norm are artists of a special kind, the kind more concerned with impressing themselves than with fame, though of course they’d like fame too. But in a sense their failure and anonymity are voluntary. Silber, in particular—he’d rather not perform his music at all than endanger his exalted self-opinion by exposing himself to critics. You can’t get from obscurity to glory without a grueling reality check, and that’s the last thing Silber wants. I worked for seven years in a psychiatric group home, and I have to say that many artists—not just chronic failures like my two—remind me of those people who sincerely think they’re Jesus but nonetheless have enough sense not to attempt Bible-grade miracles. Not in public, anyhow. “Let them think I’m just another lunatic,” they tell themselves. “I know better, and that’s all that counts.” That’s my take on Salinger—if he’s been silent all these years, it’s not that he’s sulking so much as protecting a self-opinion the size of an ocean liner from the torpedoes of bad reviews. Sometimes I think I see the same psychology at work in Glenn Gould—in his early retirement from the concert stage, for instance, or his often willfully outrageous interpretations of the standard repertoire.

DW: Male friendship and platonic jealousy play a big role in this book. Norm is jealous of all of Silber’s former friends, Silber forbids any contact with Scooter, Cletus is a veritable firestarter for such disputes. It’s all so pathetic, yet one comes away admiring the author’s courage to look honestly at such unpleasant and un-macho tensions.

CM: Both Norm and Silber are overgrown adolescents. Norm especially, with his weightlifting, his addiction to pornography, his need for father-figures to rebel against. And adolescence is the age of same-sex crushes, right? All the jealousies and insecurities that occur in sexual relationships occur in friendships too at that age, and friendship may be a more fertile plot for novelists to cultivate because it hasn’t been as depleted by overplanting.

DW: Is this your magnum oprah?

CM: Oprah! Read my novel! If you pick it for your book club, I promise not to say anything mean about you, your viewers, your club, or your show. Put a sticker on the cover—see if I care. You can even paste it right over my photo. My Uncle Bill (a TV producer) claims to have launched your career, so you owe me.