Posted by: Necci – Nov 09, 2011
“God, I hate to think of the forests I've felled, just to pay the rent . . . When it comes to literature, I'm a furnace. I'm a wildfire. I'm the inferno of American Fiction.” --Harry Bloch
Each fall, VCU's English Department and Cabell Library put on a festival in honor of a first novel that has come out the previous calendar year and been selected from nearly a hundred entries. They fly the winning author to Richmond, where s/he gets to meet faculty and students and does a public reading at VCU, along with other events. This year's festival is going to be a big one. Not only is it the award's tenth year, but this year's winner, The Serialist, by David Gordon, isn't your ordinary MFA fare. Instead, it's a literary potboiler, bristling with literary elements from poetry to gore.
In anticipation of his upcoming visit to Richmond, I spoke to Gordon on the phone from New York one evening last week. He had been spending a lot of the day reading Marcel Proust, as he has recently been asked to lead the advanced reading group at New York City's Proust society. Not a French-speaker, he seemed a little surprised at being invited to head the group, but I could tell he was excited. It was similar to his reaction when I asked him about how it feels to have a novel published. “I'm still poor,” he said, “and it's not like I have anything figured out. I don't know what I'm doing now.” He went on though, thinking back. “There's this thing I decided for no particular reason in grade school that I was going to do, and I did it. That feels good.”
First novels are notorious for having a heavy autobiographical element, and so while I read this one, I couldn't help but imagine Gordon, as he looks in his black and white head shot on the back of the book, as his narrator, Harry Bloch. Bloch is, like Gordon, a writer; born in Queens, too; worked in porn, too. When I asked Gordon about these similarities, he relented, admitting that, yes, Bloch is basically him. He elaborated thus: “It's sort of like the same relationship between your real life and something that you dream about—like your great aunt riding an elephant down Broadway with Abraham Lincoln,” he said.
In this novel, Gordon has dreamed himself a humdrum genre writer. He spends his days churning out books until he is asked by a famous serial killer on death row to visit the women he writes letters with, and write them into sexual fantasies that he can enjoy from behind bars. In exchange, the killer promises that he will share with Bloch his life story. Bloch is too tantalized to refuse, and quickly gets caught up in a page-turning web of sexual depravity, blood spray, and psychosis, all the while remaining our undoubted hero--the man we root for the get the girl, to solve the mystery of the second killer, and to find the buried heads of the victims.
While Harry Bloch takes on multiple writing personas, and admits that he “broke out in poetry, like acne, somewhere in pre-adolescence,” then abandoned it to writing one poem a year for his much pined after ex-girlfriend, Gordon told me he wrote poems quite seriously well into college. In fact, he still writes them today, but he never gets around to working on them enough to send them out. There's too much other writing to do. Still, you can see the influence of poetry even in The Serialist, in moments when Bloch breaks into writerly meanderings about the ineffable things in life. When I asked Gordon to comment on such language, he said, “I wanted to give as much power to the writing as I would otherwise.”
To temper the sweeping lyricism, there are some pretty graphic descriptions here, both in the primary villain Darian Clay's words and in Bloch's. The passages that detail Clay's crimes are so explicit that I found them ridiculous and bone-chilling at once. When I asked Gordon if he had any particular strategy for writing these bits, he said he wrote those scenes with the deliberate intent of following the genre of the “Post-Hannibal Lecter thriller.” He told me, “I didn't want to flinch away, any more than I wanted to do it for no reason.” He worked hard so that “every character—including the victims—felt like a real person.” This work is evident in the story, which pulled me in closer and closer as I read it at night, home alone--the manner I would recommend.
In thinking about the craft behind a book like this, I wondered if keeping the story straight was any different in this case, since The Serialist is a mystery. Besides knowing the killer before he started, Gordon said this was like any other project. Near the end it got to the point where keeping the story straight became quite a feat, and he used color-coded cue cards to help organize his thoughts. “Anything that you’re working on for that long gets so big that you can’t have it in your head,” he said. “You’re building a house that you’re living in.”
I couldn't help it: at the end of the interview, I had to go theory on Gordon, and ask about the potential criticism that this is a rather masculine read. Gordon took my question in stride, going into some ideas on narrative theory, basically asking what a masculine or feminine read is anyway. “Especially in preliminary stages of working on something,” he said, “it's deadly to worry about if you're going to upset someone with what you are writing.” Agreed.
Gordon's never been to Richmond before. When I asked him what he expects, he said a “pretty, small kind of southern college town” that is “a little bit apart.” This November, hopefully we can give him a better idea. You won't be disappointed by this edgy, funny debut book, or its courageous author.
VCU's First Novelist Festival will be held from November 15 and 16 at VCU Student Commons. David Gordon will read from The Serialist on the 16th. Other events include a talk by NPR book critic Alan Cheuse and panels featuring previous winners, as well as Gordon's agent and editor. All events are free and open to the public.
By Amira Pierce