Your story in this week’s issue, “Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother,” consists of two separate narratives. One is about an old homeless man, who is seen rummaging through garbage cans on a street; the other is about a man visiting his brother, a temporary inpatient at an addiction center. Did you know from the outset the form the story would take?
No, I wrote them in consecutive order and didn’t know they’d work together. But after I was finished, I realized that they formed a counterpoint with each other.
The first narrative takes its title from a Soviet pianist, Sviatoslav Richter, who was considered by some to be one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. Why did Richter come to mind?
I’ve had a fascination with Richter for years. He was a brilliant pianist and one of those iconoclastic figures, and as I moved from image to image, I intuitively landed on Richter, sitting on a stage, preparing to play. I do know that he suffered from bouts of chronic depression—he mentioned this in one of his notebooks—and carried a plastic lobster around for comfort, leaving it behind just before he went on stage.
You describe the way Richter would pause before he started to play, drawing out the silence in the auditorium as the audience waits. How important to the story is the idea of capturing that moment before something starts?
I think that those moments before a performer plays are the moments when the potential for something to be created may—or may not—arrive. A friend of mine, Ross Benjamin (he’s translating all of Kafka’s journals), read the second part as the story rehearsing itself for a story, and that makes a strange kind of sense. Every interaction with another person involves a dance of expectation, even when you’re just passing someone in the street. Inside those moments—however brief they may be—there is a kind of anticipatory silence. I’m not sure how all of this relates to the story, but somehow I think that when you see someone on the street, someone who is clearly alone and wandering, you want to create a narrative of how they got there. There’s a void between actions, and I think that mental illness confronts us with a sense, a destabilizing sense, of the intricacies of the mind.
The passage in which you describe Richter’s playing also folds in an exploration of what it might be to find oneself homeless. There are no periods in this passage—the sentence runs to five hundred and forty-nine words. Why did you want this to be one unbroken sentence? What did the form help you to convey?
This is a hard question to answer. I think—or, at least, the story seems to think—that perhaps we’re all implicated in the possibility of mental illness, or homelessness, when we come into contact with someone who is suffering. The long sentence moves from the idea of finding oneself in a state of instability, being taken in by one’s parents, being comforted, and then returning to a certain stability, but it also evokes a person who has an acute sense of beauty—perhaps an artist. People like Richter, people who pin all of life and hope on the creation of art, ride a fine edge. Those who see beauty almost too intensely can easily look mad to those who are functioning within the confines of so-called normal life.
In the second narrative, “Oh Rockland!,” the narrator’s brother is in an addiction center which is found in the grounds of what was once Rockland State Hospital for the Insane, in Orangeburg, New York. The narrator refers in passing to Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” which has the repeated refrain, “I’m with you in Rockland,” in Part III, as Ginsberg addresses his friend Carl Solomon. How significant was that poem to you when you were working on the story?
“Howl” is incredibly significant to me. Years back, I resisted the poem and thought it was a bit messy and perhaps too hyperbolic—I just didn’t completely get it. But now I feel differently and I think it’s one of the great American poems, for sure, and it resonates today, right now, when the country is trying to swing back to some idealistic past that never really existed. The poem operate in four parts—and I didn’t grasp that when I first read it—and moves in a progression from the individual devoured by the times, to Moloch, the cause of the torment (“Moloch whose blood is running money!”), to this intimate evocation of connecting in isolation, “I’m with you in Rockland,” and then, finally, in a footnote, to an ecstatic transcendence in which everything is holy. Everything has value. The truth is, I did find myself sitting in the parking lot at Rockland thinking, Wow, I’m in the parking lot of Rockland, the Rockland in the poem. What’s amazing to me is when the prophecy of art (and Ginsberg’s poem was in the tradition of the prophets, as described by the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who pointed out that the prophets are scandalized by the fact that in a world of immense beauty there are these injustices, and sorrows) allows you suddenly to find a poem like “Howl” resonating directly with your own life, with a moment in your everyday existence.
Are there other works of art about mental illness, or addiction, or homelessness, that you’ve found particularly illuminating?
Certain works of art somehow evoke the dynamic that exists when aspects of mental illness come into contact with the world. (By the way, I’m not completely sure I’m totally comfortable with the phrase “mental illness.” It seems somehow limited and judgmental, when the nature of the mind is so complex.) Knut Hamsun’s novel, “Hunger,” evokes the desperation and loneliness. Moments in Kafka, such as the final scene in his first great story, “The Judgment,” draw us into the physicality of being in an unstable mental state while navigating the bureaucracy of the modern world. Francis Bacon’s paintings; George Condo’s paintings. “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath; “Mrs. Dalloway,” by Virginia Woolf, which is by far one of my favorite books. And I loved Laura Dern’s performance, and the character she created, a few years ago in the HBO show “Enlightened,” because it showed the blurry edges found when coming back into the world after treatment. It might be almost a cliché to mention William Burroughs, but he nailed something—a conspiratorial, almost alien aspect of the raw chemical need, the ironic paradox involved when chemicals create their own symbiotic desire for themselves. This list could go on and on, and could include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and just about any story by Edgar Allan Poe.
Once, as you point out at the end of the story, most of the mentally ill were locked up in places like Rockland. The brother is a temporary inpatient at the treatment center. He’s been cycling in and out of the place, going from a halfway house, to an emergency ward, to the center. In the first narrative, the old man, of course, is out on the streets. How far do you think we’ve come in our treatment of mental illness and addiction since the large asylums for the insane were shut down?
This is an incredibly complex issue. The swing away from hospitalization—with the advent of new medications that were amazing, and truly revolutionary—was abrupt and quick and done with the usual American optimism, but it was also done on the cheap and without providing a sufficient safety net. America turns its back on the mentally ill. It likes to think it doesn’t, but it does. I mean, literally, we turn away, look away, because someone who is struggling brings us the news that we, too, are incredibly frail. And, naturally, all of us—in one way or another—fear our fragility, and the fact that life is fleeting and incredibly delicate. One of the problems is that the old myths, the old stigmas, are still deeply ingrained. Some of this is changing—there is a new openness—but not fast enough, and there’s a brutal sense, perhaps deep in the culture, in the grand, wonderful old concept of the American Dream, that if you don’t make it, you don’t deserve help.
You published your first novel last year, “Hystopia,” which is set at the end of the nineteen-sixties, in an America where President Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts, and returning Vietnam veterans are being drawn into forced mental-health treatments. Do you see any connections between this story and the novel? What was it like to return to the short story?
“Hystopia” was about trauma and memory. I thought of it as a dystopian story taking place in a precise historical moment—so I was working in the past, but of course it came out of me, out of my imagination, my own experiences, the axes that I have to grind, and the personal pain of watching people dear to me suffer from mental illness and homelessness. So the two are linked by the fact that they came from the same source. You can’t just tweeze apart the imagined stories of those who are exposed to trauma—of any kind—and the country, the landscape. At least, I can’t. History is personal; the landscape you live in is part of your inner life, your soul. I love the story form—the sense of having to catch only a glimpse—and felt a release going back to it.