[1 November 2007]
The special appeal of Michel Faber’s new collection of short stories, Vanilla Bright Like Eminem, can perhaps best be captured in a misunderstanding: In the interview below, I asked a question about the role of fantasy in his works, and he, reasonably enough, thought I meant “fantasy elements”—the supernatural and such. While that aspect of his work is appealing, I was more interested in the way his stories engage with psychological fantasy. His stories’ easy rapport with both meanings of fantasy makes for uncanny, exciting reading.
Faber’s breakthrough novel, at least in the United States, was The Crimson Petal and the White, a neo-Victorian novel about a prostitute named Sugar. He conducted painstaking research for that book—in fact, he was for several years an active participant on the VICTORIA-L listserv devoted to scholarly investigations into that period’s culture. As the title story’s allusion suggests, Vanilla Bright Like Eminem is a collection set largely in the present, though he ranges both forwards and backwards in time. One of the creepiest stories, “Flesh Remains Flesh”, is about a Victorian factory owner with an insatiable fetish for realistic taxidermy; meanwhile, such stories as “The Safehouse” and “The Eyes of the Soul” are apparently set in an indeterminate future.
In the main, however, Faber isn’t especially interested in rooting his stories deeply in a particular place or time. Readers who wish to infer something about his peripatetic life—he was born in Holland, raised in Australia, and lives in Scotland—may do so, though, as he mentions below, he wants to ensure his fiction is accessible to a wide readership.
Perhaps more to the point, the real subject of Faber’s stories is usually the subjective frame through which his characters perceive their world, and the various ways that frame both allows and blocks perceptions. Most of us, as we go about our lives, don’t notice local details as local—they’re just part of our world. So, too, in Vanilla Bright Like Eminem: Local flourishes emerge here and there, but they’re not his main focus. Instead, he calls our attention—playfully, but also quite seriously—to the ways in which desire and memory and social expectations fling us into relationships and drive us apart.
Faber’s stories cut across genres. Some are explicitly allegorical, such as “Finesse”, a speculative story that sees a banana republic become indistinguishable from the United States. Others are broadly comic, as in “Explaining Coconuts”, a hilarious story in which a room of 67 foreign businessmen are brought to the point of orgasm by listening to a poised Thai woman discuss the comparative advantages of her company’s coconuts. “Explaining Coconuts” nicely combines two different aspects of male desire; on the one hand, the appeal of Miss Soedhono’s “inexorable” indifference to “impatience” or even “desperate enthusiasm”, and, on the other, the quite frantic ways groups of horny heterosexual men rigidly ward off homoerotic moments: “One of the men has begun to make a soft, rhythmic sound, but he is elbowed in the ribs by his neighbors on either side. If their passions can no longer be secret, let them at least be silent.”
In many stories, however, there is simply a slight twist to the otherwise perfectly normal world one might expect to find. In “Less Than Perfect”, for example, a store detective fantasizes about having sex with a beautiful shoplifter—but even in his fantasies he ejaculates almost instantly.
Other stories are about the myriad ways life frustrates happiness, or, at the very least, bestows it only in anticipation or in retrospect. A man wakes up from five years as a “drooling imbecile”, to find his symbolic place in his family thoroughly closed to him. A former drug addict tries to reconnect with her son, and even succeeds, but is torn with anxiety and guilt.
The lightness of Faber’s touch ensures that these stories, even at their darkest, are paradoxically pleasant reading. In the interview below, he speaks to this dynamic, noting that fantasy affords him a certain amount of emotional protection, without becoming inhuman or callous. To the contrary, reading Vanilla Bright Like Eminem gives a hint of something like fellow-feeling: While we might not quite be at home in the universe, that sense of displacement nonetheless is a common ground. Even if we can’t see outside our subjective frames, Faber implies, we can recognize that others are in the same predicament. That’s no mean thing.
Michel Faber and I exchanged e-mails about Vanilla Bright Like Eminem in early October, 2007.
These stories seem to share a preoccupation with fantasy. Sometimes this is explicit, as in “Explaining Coconuts” or “Less than Perfect” other times, perhaps less so, as in “All Black”, or “Andy Comes Back”, and sometimes the line is harder to judge, as in “The Smallness of the Action”. Is it fair to describe that interest in fantasy as a source of your work’s realism (whether moral, psychological, or other)?
There are two very different reasons why I often use fantasy elements in my stories.
One is that so-called “literary fiction” can be deplorably dull, a sort of navel-gazing exercise in which the author is on a painfully earnest search for their own identity, the key to why they didn’t feel loved by their parents, blah blah blah. In a lot of readers’ minds, this has created an artificial split between literary fiction (which you read for edification and enlightenment) and fantasy fiction (which you read for thrills). That split bothers me. A while back, an online bookseller contacted me to name my “guilty pleasures”, i.e., trashy books that I would read for
pleasure when nobody’s looking. That’s a worrying concept. All good books should thrill you. Art should not be humdrum.
The other reason is that, as I get older, I feel more and more grief about human suffering, human vulnerability, human stupidity. The outlandish elements in my stories (sci-fi, Gothic, historical, allegorical, etc) give me a degree of protection, so that I can tackle these griefs without being
devastated by them. I think very carefully about the balance. If a story is too bizarre, the reader loses their grip on the emotional issues and just sees the bizarreness. The weirder the set-up, the more real and true it has to feel.
When I wrote about fantasy, I didn’t so much mean the supernatural, or swords-n-sorcery, or anything like that. I instead meant it more generally as a mixture of imagination/anticipation, memory, and desire. And so when I said that your stories were concerned with fantasy, I simply meant that they seem to take up the problem of how we see or make sense of the world. The way fantasy (in that psychological sense) interferes with—or even makes possible—perception is, to my mind, a standing concern in your work. Does that make sense?
I suspect that what drives a lot of my fiction is not so much the power of fantasy (in the sense that you meant that word) but the problematical relationship of “subjective” and “objective” reality. I often show my characters constructing the universe around them, transforming the world according to the emotional/ psychological state that informs their perception. I allow the reader to decide whether this world is a gross distortion of what’s “really” out there, or whether it’s close to the “truth”.
A lot of my work is third person narrative, which tempts unwary readers to conclude that it’s to be taken at face value. In a big book like The Crimson Petal, you get lots of conflicting realities, and a growing sense that these characters, while ostensibly sharing each other’s lives, inhabit different self-created universes. And even a very smart, aware reader can be slow to absorb the implications of that. For example, our earliest experiences of Dr Curlew are filtered through the perceptions of Agnes. Although we’re aware that she’s mentally unstable, we still build up a very negative view of him, and presume that his treatment of her is what we “observe”, i.e., borderline sexual abuse. Sugar, who learns of him only through Agnes, is terrified when she’s finally at his mercy. She feels like a lamb going to the slaughter and we share her dread. And, bafflingly, he behaves perfectly correctly, the model of a good doctor. We suddenly realise that we don’t know Dr Curlew at all.
In The Apple, my recent collection of short stories featuring characters from The Crimson Petal (not yet published in the USA), I develop this sort of thing further. For example, a much older William looks back on his time with Sugar and constructs a completely different reality from what we experienced in The Crimson Petal. He can’t help it. He’s always done it. Everybody does it.
People are so resistant to other people’s realities, let alone any “objective” reality. My fiction should make the reader want to grab some of these characters and shout “No, no, can’t you see it’s not LIKE that?!”
Perhaps relatedly, institutionalized desire—marriage, the family—comes off very badly in many of these stories. (The title story’s a notable exception.) Even in “Serious Swimmers”, the reunion of mother and son is disrupted by her diarrhea and visions of his death. In “A Hole with Two Ends”, the maimed wildcat almost offers Sandra a pretext for lashing out at Neil for the various petit failures of their business and relationship. And then there’s that great phrase from “Explaining Coconuts”—“business associates or absent spouses”, which somehow sound the same. Is your vision of these institutions really so dark, or do you conceive of this darkness as a kind of compensation or release? (Or some other option . . . )
This is something I’ve been wrestling with in the last few years. When I was a young person, my views of marriage and the family were very pessimistic. Which was convenient, because it’s easier to write a compelling narrative about dysfunctional people than about happy people. Stories need conflict. However, I’ve been happily married for almost 20 years now, and I’ve grown increasingly uneasy about my failure to reflect that potential for happiness in my fiction. I think that serious writers have a duty to tell the truth as they perceive it. So, the novel I’m currently working on has a protagonist who’s a fundamentally good person, in a loving relationship with his wife. Does that sound dull to you? Well, that’s where the fantasy element comes in…
The title of the collection might imply that you’ve taken a sort of turn into popular culture, but that’s not really accurate—at least, your characters’ speech and thoughts aren’t flooded with the debris of mass culture in the way your title implies. Is that deliberate?
Absolutely. Stories that rely for their effect on “common knowledge” about pop culture references become unreadable very fast. There is no way anyone’s going to be reading Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons novels 25 years from now. Their books will need a page-by-page glossary explaining all the bygone cultural references, and nobody will have the energy to put that much studious effort into the reading process. They’ll do it for Shakespeare, because it has the status of a holy relic, but they’re sure as hell not going to do it for a slightly old, “used-to-be-
I do my best to write my stuff in such a way that readers in the future will still be able to engage with it. For that matter, I do my best to cross national boundaries, too. A good story ought to make sense to Norwegian readers as well as French, Americans, British… As soon as a story makes sense only to a Londoner or a New Yorker, I see it as an exercise in self-indulgence.
“America” is an interesting motif in this collection: home of kooky religions, Eminem, “big people . . . head-and-shoulders above the other passengers”, and, perhaps most strikingly, in “Finesse”, it’s the enigmatic destination of political prisoners. (Enigmatic because it’s both a sort of joke—they’re not really in America, they’re in camp—but also because, oddly, the unnamed country has come to resemble America a great deal.) Your thoughts on the US?
As you suggest, America has more of a symbolic significance to the characters in some of my stories than a real one. Even the boy in “Vanilla-Bright Like Eminem”, who is a bona fide American, looks to a symbolic sub-stratum of American culture – the hip-hop scene – to
define himself. Of course, the whole mythology of hip-hop culture has nothing to do with the reality of his life as a middle-class white kid in the suburbs. He might as well aspire to be a giraffe.
However, I haven’t answered part of your question, the comment about how America has come to resemble the dictatorship in “Finesse”.
Generally I’ve tried to keep my political views separate from my art. During the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars I wrote political journalism, went on marches and so on. I also wrote a furiously polemical novella called Bombshell which my publisher decided, perhaps wisely, not to publish. So, yes, the USA has been in my thoughts. It’s almost unbearably tragic how much needless hatred and resentment America has attracted to itself in recent years, but there are many fine journalists writing about this and maybe the job should be left to them.
How does the title story work in relation to the collection as a whole? (To my mind, the title story is much more upbeat, or at least, less equivocal in its vision of possible happiness than almost any of the other stories.)
Overall, the collection is darker than my first collection, Some Rain Must Fall. As I was assembling the shortlist and assessing the overall effect, I was uneasy with how grim and scary a lot of it was. So I wrote several more stories which emphasised the gentler, good-humoured,
transcendent sides of human existence. “Mouse” was one of those, written only a few weeks before the collection was due to be finalised. And I deliberately put “Vanilla-Bright” and “The Fahrenheit Twins” at the end, because one is very positive and inspirational, and the other is
magical and open-ended. In the American edition, with “Vanilla-Bright” at the very end, there’s an even greater feeling of finishing on an upbeat note. [Note: “The Fahrenheit Twins” is published as part of The Courage Consort, a collection of novellas.]
Do you have a current writing project?
I’ve just finished a novel called The Fire Gospel, which will appear as part of Canongate’s massive Myths series. It’s a modern version of the Prometheus myth. I’ve also been making extremely slow progress on another novel which I hope to finish before I die.
Is there any serious writer who you deliberately don’t read? (I’m thinking of Freud’s claim not to have read Nietzsche, partly out of fear of discovering he’d been anticipated, and partly to avoid coloring his thought too much in one direction.)
There are lots of serious writers I haven’t read, but not because of any deep anxiety, more because I love music more than literature and there are only so many hours in a day. I would much rather use my spare time to explore Japanese avant-garde music than to investigate Norman Mailer or whoever. As for influence, I’ve never been worried about my vision being “coloured” by other authors’. I’ve always had a strong sense of my own literary values and there are no stories of mine which, looking back on them, seem to be in the thrall of what I was reading at the time. In fact, I’m suspicious of writers who are so easily influenced. You know, they discover Raymond Carver and suddenly, for a while at least, they’re a Carver clone. It’s like getting an Eminem haircut.