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An Interview with Christopher Miller

Maisonneuve editor Derek Webster talks to Christopher Miller about his new novel, Philip K. Dick, and the evils of realistic fiction.

Christopher Miller is a regular contributor to Maisonneuve, which in recent issues has been printing excerpts from his Field Guide to Endangered Comic-Strip Clichés. The following interview focuses on Miller’s new novel, The Cardboard Universe: a Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank. A satirical murder-mystery about a prolific science-fiction writer named Phoebus K. Dank, the book is written in the form of a reader’s guide, with alphabetical, witty and highly digressive entries on Dank's life and works: fifty-seven novels, four wives, several roommates, bizarre clothing and diets, and more guffaws and great writing than one usually finds in an entire season of books.

The Cardboard Universe is getting the kind of praise normally reserved for Byzantine emperors. The Los Angeles Times called it “spittle-coaxingly funny … a massive labyrinth of a book.” Boing Boing said it “confounds your expectations, and astounds you with Miller's high-octane imagination, rivaling brilliant genre-benders like Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler and Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire.” And the San Francisco Chronicle called it “the funniest book of the year—perhaps of the decade.”

Maisonneuve editor Derek Webster recently sat down across town from Miller over a warm computer and a cup of Java script to discuss what the hell he’s been putting in his book reviewer’s coffee.

MM: So what exactly is a cardboard universe? Something like a blackboard jungle? Or a clockwork orange?

CM: My character Phoebus K. Dank is modeled on Philip K. Dick, and my title comes from the Dick quotation that serves as my epigraph: “It’s a cardboard universe, and if you lean too hard against it, you fall through.” Dick was an amazingly prolific and imaginative writer, but in certain ways a bad one. Dank is even worse, and though he creates a cosmos teeming with imaginary people, most of them are no more lifelike than those life-sized cardboard cutouts of Matt Damon or Bruce Willis that you see at Blockbuster.

MM: How did the book come to be written?

CM: At first it was called 101 Books I'll Never Write, and it had nothing to do with Dick or Dank. I’d been paging through my old notebooks (which I’ve been saving for twenty-five years now), reading all the entries marked “Idea for Novel” and reflecting sadly that none of those novels would ever be written—that they were buried alive in my notebooks—when it occurred to me to write a Borgesian book about all the books I’d never write.  But my real model wasn’t Borges but Pierre Benabou, who wrote a book called Why I Haven't Written Any of My Books. For a while I even worried that my book would be too much like Benabou’s, though the books I've failed to write are nothing like the ones he failed to write. God knows the territory of artistic failure is vast enough for thousands of explorers to plant their white flags without anyone having to look at anyone else’s.

In any case, I soon decided it would be more interesting to pretend that my unwritten books had in fact been written, but by somebody else. That’s where Dank entered the picture. He started as no more than a device, an organizing principle, but soon became the real focus of interest for me. As for the original 101 books, only a few made it into The Cardboard Universe, where the imaginary books had to be the sort Dank would have written, rather than the ones I might have. In other words, the plot ideas I began with—those nuggets from my notebooks—were just the stones I needed to start the soup. The main ingredient was Dank.

MM: And Dank was inspired by Philip K. Dick. Why Philip K. Dick?

CM: Well, once I decided to attribute my unwritten books to someone else, I had to imagine the kind of writer who might plausibly have written them—a writer so prolific and unhampered by good taste that he’d take the trouble to expand my ridiculous high-concept plots into ridiculous low-brow paperbacks.  As it happened, I’d just read a biography of Dick, whose fiction I’ve always loved, though less for its execution than for its mind-blowing ideas.  Several of the story ideas in my notebooks struck me as Phildickian (to use the rather Armenian-sounding adjective favored by some of his fans).  And Dick himself was fascinating person—one part laudable, one part laughable, and one part lovable.  Not that Dank is strictly modeled on Dick—he’s more like the Dick of some defective and imperfectly parallel universe.

MM: One of the most distinctive features of your novel is the use of two narrators or “commentators” who strongly disagree about their Dank’s merits, and frequently snipe at each other. What can two narrators do that one can’t?

CM: A lot of the humor comes from the commentators’ ambivalence toward their subjects. Both The Cardboard Universe and my previous novel, Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects, take the form of pseudo-scholarly discussions of contemporary artists—in the first book, a composer, in the second a novelist. The achievements of both artists are dubious at best, though their ambitions are boundless. In Sudden Noises, I used a conflicted narrator who keeps flipping back and forth between contempt and adulation, as if two different critics were competing for the podium. I’m still fascinated by that kind of ambivalence or self-dissension—the kind routinely misdescribed as “schizophrenic.” This time around, I decided to embody the conflict in two warring narrators, of whom one worships and one hates their subject, Phoebus K. Dank. As you know if you’ve finished the book, that’s not the whole story, but it’s all I’m at liberty to say.

MM: Is one of those narrators, Bill Boswell, speaking for you in the entry called “Planet Food” when he goes on a diatribe against contemporary realistic fiction and its emphasis on “the carcinomas, jumper cables, drinking habits, simple pleasures, money problems, twelve-step programs, go-go-dancing single mothers, brimming ashtrays, housecoats, slippers, pregnancies, felonies, epiphanies, adulteries, and plain-spoken wisdom” of idealized salt-of-the-earth types?

CM: Yes, but what Boswell is denouncing in that entry isn’t realistic fiction per se, but the mentality that considers realistic fiction the only valid kind—a mentality that blinds so many tastemakers, lawgivers, and gatekeepers of the American literary scene to other kinds of work. Even a critic as smart as James Wood sometimes writes as if literary realism were more than just one flavor among many.

MM: The underlying attitude seems to be: it’s alright if canonized, exotic, or foreign authors like Borges or Calvino write like this, but not mild-mannered authors who grew up in Cleveland like you.

CM: Exactly. Updike—may he rest in peace—was one of the worst offenders, singing the praises of Nabokov and Calvino while ridiculing or patronizing homegrown innovators. Though he at least acknowledged their existence. The way most American reviewers deal with American fiction that ventures too far from the mainstream is to ignore it right out of existence.

MM: Sudden Noises is organized as liner notes to the complete works of an avant-garde composer. The Cardboard Universe is written like an encyclopedia, with hundreds of entries in alphabetical order. What is the attraction for you of these forms?

CM: I could quote Yeats on “the fascination of the difficult,” but God knows it’s difficult enough to write a decent novel without adding needless challenges. Maybe I’ll quote Frost instead. He said that for him free verse was “like playing tennis with the net down,” and that’s how I feel about fiction. It’s not, incidentally, how I feel about poetry, but isn’t it odd that in poetry a penchant for constraints (say, for a regular rhyme scheme and meter) is considered reprehensibly old-fashioned, while in fiction the same penchant is considered reprehensibly new-fangled? The only constant is the reprehension, because our era wants—or thinks it wants—its artists to let it all hang out. But I was living in a converted girdle factory when I embarked on The Cardboard Universe, so it’s only proper that I paid attention its shape. Many writers would consider my approach perverse or masochistic, but the fact is that some of us do our best work when snugly laced into a constrictive form, be it the cruel whale-bone corset of hardcore alphabetical restrictions (as in Perec’s La Disparition, a novel written without the letter ‘e’), or the more accommodating rubber girdle of “soft” constraints like mine.

MM: As in your first novel, all the major characters and even some of the minor ones seem to be nursing delusions of grandeur. Why do you write about people like that?

CM: Delusions intrigue me, maybe because we are all self-deceived in our different ways, and it is always instructive to see your own foibles writ large in the loopy, paper-wasting penmanship of mania. Also, my book is supposed to be funny, and grandiose characters work well in comic fiction. They have so much at stake in their ridiculous delusions that you can’t laugh at them without also being drawn into their predicaments. You see how silly they are, but you also see how their wrong-headedness is a frantic adaptation to the wrongness of their lives.
When you write a novel, you spend a lot of time with your imaginary people, and bona fide realists—people who aren’t at least a little grandiose—tend to be pretty depressing, if only because reality tends to be.

MM: What drew you to writing in the first place, and what place does writing have in your life now?

CM: Good question. When you’ve been doing anything as long as I’ve been writing, chances are your motives have changed out of all recognition from whatever they were to begin with.

Anything writers say for the record about their motives is probably bullshit. About a decade ago someone published a book called Why I Write, a collection of essays by various well-known fiction writers telling various high-sounding lies about their motives. As I read it, and wrinkled my nose, I tried to imagine a book called Why I Dribble, a collection of essays by prominent basketball players, giving reasons for their choice of career. One player claims that basketball, for him, is a way of thinking aloud—of meditating on the ludic nature of Life itself. Another, a nimble forward, explains that because he is shorter than most of the men on the court, he sees his opponents as so many father figures, and the game as a way of working through various Oedipal issues. A third, a child of poverty, likes to play defense because he instinctively sides with the have-nots, the team without the ball.

Why is Why I Dribble so unthinkable, when no one bats an eye at Why I Write? Is it because we already know, or think we know, why professional athletes do what they do? Is it because their motives—money, glory, sex—are so much more predictable than writers’? Or is it, just possibly, because writers are the better liars, and the better self-deceivers?

I could say I write because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. That would be true, but not the whole truth. The shocking fact is that our reasons for writing change, like our reasons for doing anything else we do year after year, like remaining in the city where we happen to live. It is probably dishonest to offer ready reasons for anything you’ve been doing half your life, because it denies the huge part that sheer inertia plays in human behavior. For most people who have lived in one place for years, the most honest answer to the question of why they live there is that an object at rest tends to remain at rest. If they weren’t born there, no doubt they had good reasons for moving there in the first place, since moving is too big a chore to undertake for no good reason, but how likely is it that a former farmboy who has lived in Montreal or Manhattan for a decade still thinks of the city the same way he did when he first contemplated moving there? Probably I started writing to impress my mother—to win more than my share of her love by outdoing my siblings—but I’m pretty sure that isn’t why I continue to write.

By the age I’ve reached, many writers are like people who follow lovers across the country to unfamiliar cities and then, when the romance ends, remain wherever they happen to be, wherever love has beached them, though their only reason for going there in the first place is gone. And speaking of reasons, it’s important to distinguish them from motives. Motives are what make us do what we do; reasons are the explanations we give ourselves (and others) for doing it. The more closely reasons reflect motives, the truer they are, but reasons have all sorts of other functions—so many that it may be missing the point to ask if a reason is true or false. In the mouths of people as self-conscious as writers, the main function of reasons is to impress—to impress oneself and others—but reasons also serve as mini-manifestos, as pep-talks to the self, and as experiments in self-definition. The most charitable way to look at Why I Write may be to think of it as a book of reasons and not a book of motives.