‘I felt like my eyeballs were getting sucked out’, Reed says, then a long steely pause. As if he brushed up against something buried deep, but flinched and withdrew. There’s a whiskey-like, rocking-chair rhythm to his next words. ‘I’d traipse home in a Zen-like state of gratitude, to be done for the day. To have happy, healthy children. To have all my limbs’. From his office in New York, just at the edge of Chinatown, it seems as if author John Reed has struggled with the enormity of something entirely indescribable. And if has not been able to wrestle down, at least he has made an escape, deeply scathed, but functional. The office is burdened with a sense of being taxed, a feeling of the narrowest of escapes. And across half a world, so is mine.
The author of Snowball’s Chance and All the World’s a Grave, John Reed, is most recently the mind behind Tales of Woe. By no means is it an easy book. At every corner the book will confront you, make demands of you, engage you. And ultimately, reward you. Although, throughout this process, the saccharine-catharsis adopted by the rank and file of Hollywood productions, the happy ending and the uplifting redemption, will have no place here. The stories in Woe might take the dip, but there’s no upwards crawl after they bottom out. John Reed’s Tales of Woe is a line-in-the-sand moment, for print literature, as well as for the human consciousness. In year when we lived through earthquakes in Haiti, in Chile, Snowmageddon on the Eastern Seaboard, when Katrina is malleable enough to become the backdrop for David Simon’s Treme, it feels like Woe is a challenge.
It isn’t of course, Tales of Woe is an opportunity.
It would be hard to expect anything less from Reed. His first breakout novel, Snowball’s Chance satirizes George Orwell’s Animal Farm. What if Snowball, the Trotsky-analog in Orwell’s novel, had eluded his would-be assassins and returned triumphant to the Farm? Capitalist manufacture protocols could not have been far behind. In his own words, Reed meditates on the long, lingering reach of Animal Farm and how it had become the basis of much neoconservative thinking.
He’d had the idea kicking around his head as late as September 10th, 2001. Just the title of the book and not much more. He’d mentioned the title to his wife while they walked down Lafayette Street earlier that day. But within hours of 9-11, after scores of chalk-covered people, the idea emerged fully formed. Snowball’s Chance was a chance to run the farm, Snowball’s political ascendancy. Animal Farm was Orwell’s reaching forward about 50 years, and with 9-11 that novel’s time was finally and convincingly over, Reed muses.
Reed would go on to deconstruct Shakespeare in his subsequent All the World’s a Grave, a book that would retell five Shakespearean plays as one single tale. Perhaps somewhere deep down, that book came from Reed’s experiences as a grad student at Columbia. ‘I went to CU for my MFA because there was this famous professor who had a course on [French philosopher Jacques] Derrida. And I was really excited to take his class and read [Derrida’s On Grammatology]’, Reed continues to muse in his interview with PopMatters. ‘And now do I not only not remember anything I read, I don’t even sitting in the class’.
Over years of friendship, Reed would go on to tell his current editor and MTV Press Publisher Jacob Hoye this story. ‘We have to forget that stuff’, Hoye would tell Reed. ‘When I was reading all the philosophy, I was writing terrible stuff. I don’t think he meant we forget it as in lose the meaning, I think he meant forget it, as in take it for granted. The other night I went out to martinis with this marvelous publicist from the Feminist Press and we wound up formulating a hitlist. For when publishing dies. You know…writers are pretty bitter’.
Reed swings through tropes of conversation in acts of bravery. Like the truly intrepid, his mind is shriven of constraints, but sensitive to those who still find themselves constrained. Moving directly on from the somber meditative tone around his having lost the memory of learning, to his working relationship with Hoye as a framing device for interpreting said loss, to jocularly speaking about an end-of-industry hitlist, Reed articulates the creative source behind his disparate projects. There is a resilience to him, a mind tilting not at windmills, but at giants themselves.
It is the kind of mind at play in the world that you feel you can begin to trust with large-scale projects, with huge undertakings. It feels like missing out on Tales of Woe might be missing out period.
‘My ego nods at “revolutionary”’, Reed says at my attempt to find the right colorizing of his most recent project, ‘Pathetic, I know. But in Woe…’. There is another extended pause, this time the artist recalibrates the world around him. There is an expectant hum. ‘How to say this best?... I wanted to strip Woe of the Western story, which is a religious story. Sin, suffering redemption, but it’s also a political story.
‘That story is built into news, into entertainment, into advertising, into everything. The notion that people who suffer are suffering for a reason, or that their suffering, in the end, will somehow be for the best. In my experience of life, that’s just not true.
‘But that narrative is worse than “not true”. It’s what allows us to ignore or discount the suffering of other people. “So and so deserved it”, or “it’s for the common good”. That kind of logic allows for monumental evil’.
There’s another pause but this time with a sense of a murmuring tomorrow. Reed is certainly elegant in articulating the banality of evil, the things that de-evolve us from what futurist Jeremy Rifkin would undoubtedly refer to as the “Empathic Civilization”. And he is certainly fearless in the very necessary task of confronting this everyday machinery that allows us to blind ourselves to suffering. But with the notion that he might find himself daunted by the task, he appears more accessible, more humane.
‘I’ve got to shout out to Walter Einenkel on the book design’, Reed continues, ‘I was really afraid Woe would be hard to read. Physically difficult, white text on black page. But it’s not, so that’s a relief.
‘And I also assumed that it would be impossible to read through in one sitting
that a reader would pick up the book and read a story, and then another later, like an old story book. But people have read it all the way through. I was shocked! But they were like, “no problem”. I did attempt to keep the prose super simple’.
Reed goes on to draw a connection between the horror story that has emerged over about two thousand years, or perhaps longer, and the form of the modern book itself. ‘I don’t see art as a mandate’, he says. But he should really tell me the story of Woe’s creation, he enthuses.
‘From pitching over garlic until today, the entire process took quite a while’.
Pitching over garlic is certainly the cusp of an intriguing story. Reed and his editor Jacob Hoye had been dining out. Reed had been pitching ideas in quick succession and Hoye had placed an off-menu order for cloves of grilled garlic. Already exhausted by the rapid-fire of his pitch process, Reed rounded a corner. Just as Hoye’s order arrived, Reed pitched the idea for Tales of Woe, a collection of ‘true stories that just get worse’.
Reed continues, ‘And the waiter sets a huge plate in front of [Hoye], with maybe fifty cloves of grilled garlic and Jacob looks down, and says, “Now that’s a book!”’.
But returning to answering about the full scope of the creative project for Woe, Reed offers: ‘The book was delayed by the financial crisis by about a year. And Jacob [Hoye], wisely slowed down our timetable. Also, the design took a long, long time. There was more satire, which we took out’.
‘I researched for fifty stories. Found fifty. But then they were turning out longer than I’d anticipated. And then, they were so depressing to work on, I had to take breaks. So maybe 2.5 years. But a long 2.5 years. Everything about the book fought back’.
Was it emotionally taxing? Was there a huge debt to pay psychically?
Reed stalls and offers a feint, a fakeout to not have to confront the depths he has already emerged from. The depths you too will emerge from. ‘Printing a PDF cost 100 bucks, the ink went on coloring the paper black’.
But he shrugs it off and confronts that 2,000 year old monster again.
‘I felt like my eyeballs were getting sucked out’, Reed says. ‘I’d traipse home in a Zen-like state of gratitude, to be done for the day. To have happy, healthy children. To have all my limbs’.
On the day PopMatters spoke with Reed complimentary copies of the first print run of Tales of Woe had just arrived. This against the backdrop of an office filled with, in Reed’s own words, ‘really conservative books’ that were needed for a piece on Reed’s role in the National Book Critics’ Circle.
‘The kind of books my wife would admire’, Reed calls them. ‘I don’t want to denigrate the books I admire, but sometimes a book feels alive to me. And Woe feels alive to me. Maybe contagious, but alive. I feel like Woe is something an alien put in my hands and commanded me to take credit for’.