David Joseph: Fall 2020 Philip Roth ResidenT
Stadler Center: Tell us about the surreal novel you're working on.
David Joseph: A Catalogue of the Needs of the Living is a polyphonic novel following the first-person narration of more than a dozen characters, most centrally a suburban nuclear family—father Corbin, mother Penelope, daughter Charlotte, and son Gilly. The project takes place in an alternate present-day United States where children open-carry firearms to school, the government employs Reburiers to shovel dirt over the Returning dead, and, in commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the Bomb, the State distributes a “puppy” to each American household. It’s immediately clear to Charlotte and her friend Malik, however, that the family’s “puppy” is in fact a person coated in red, white, and blue fluff. The novel’s characters navigate their conflicting commitments to family, community, and a most violently abstracted “other.”
A Catalogue of the Needs of the Living investigates the American tendency to mindlessly accept systemic untruths—in particular, the project aspires to deconstruct the fascistic fantasy of suburban whiteness. It’s a book about confronting the status quo in a society rooted in unquestioned contradictions and meticulously-crafted ignorance. The story’s heroes dare to imagine a more fully-sensed and embodied future.
SC: What about the surrealism genre feels relevant to the writing world in 2020?
DJ: Ultimately, I don’t think I can be trusted to reliably denote genre distinctions, even in my own writing. Despite my project’s bizarre premises, I’ve joked that I’m writing a textbook. Certainly it’s no less absurd than the inane, white-washed history I was taught in public schooling, complete with a hunky-dory first Thanksgiving and good-hearted slaveholders. So much of what I grew up believing was realistic is, in fact, utter fantasy.
I’m suspicious of genre markers because I think many of them are misnomers. I’m thinking of Jess Row’s book of essays, White Flights, which highlights the fantastical elements of realism, particularly with regard to race, and of Melissa Goodrich’s essay, Diving Into the Faery Handbag: On Fabulism
, which argues: “It is more powerful to actually be haunted by your dead baby than to be ‘troubled’ or ‘perplexed’ or to run a finger along the long undusted cradle.” To me, much of contemporary realism has begun to feel tidy and logical, where my everyday life is messy and overly emotional. All I really know is, my writing feels most honest and moral to me when it challenges its own principles of order.
I’ve reluctantly claimed the “surreal” tag because a common conceit of the genre is the irrational juxtaposition of images. Replace “images” with “ideas” and you’re living in the United States in 2020. Here, masks both prevent and cause the spread of COVID-19, depending on whom you trust. We have a cult that believes an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory claiming liberal elites mastermind a secret pedophilia ring; meanwhile the same cult denies the State’s active and documented abduction of at least 545 migrant children.
Here’s a writing prompt: Write a story in the style of domestic realism from the perspective of a QAnon believer. Then try to convince me you’re not writing satire, or science fiction, or horror.
SC: What advice do you have for creative writing students at Bucknell?
DJ: Dear Bucknell writing students, it’s ok to not write. I mean this in the small sense (it’s ok to not write today) and the larger sense (it’s ok to not be a writer). So much is not right right now. If writing isn’t helping you take care of yourself and your community, it’s ok, even necessary, to do something else—today or everyday. Trust that you will write when you need to. Maybe that’s right now. Or maybe right now you need to drink some water, or play a game with a friend who lives very far away. Maybe you need to go for a walk and maybe on that walk you will accidentally hear words in your head and you will rush to write those words down. Or maybe you’ll repeat the words in your head, hoping not to forget them, but you’ll forget anyway, and that will be ok, too. Or maybe you’ll watch a heron fishing and not think of words at all.
I am not advising you to quit writing. Maybe, instead, I’m urging you to expand your concept of art-making to encompass all your needs and preoccupations. Consider why writing is important to you when you’re away from the page. Is it the imagination? The curiosity? The discovery? The play? Is it the sense of belonging in collaboration? None of these is exclusive to putting pen to paper or fingers to keys. Maybe when you’re cooking, you’re also engaging aspects of your artistic practice. Maybe when you’re resting, you’re also nourishing your art. Hold the both/neither. Tend the contradiction, and keep moving.
—Alexandra Schneider, Stadler Center Program Assistant