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Alexander Maksik takes on authenticity in the art world in the time of Trump with new novel, “The Long Corner"
In Alexander Maksik’s latest novel, “The Long Corner,” Sol Fields is on a search for authenticity — in life and in art — and many of the people in his life are more than happy to offer their opinions about how he might find it. When he is offered an opportunity to a remote and mysterious artist’s colony called The Coded Garden, his search is further problematized. Just who and what in The Coded Garden is authentic — up to and including Sol himself — is a thorny mystery. The novel is frequently arresting, usefully murky, and consistently thought-provoking.
Maksik, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of three previous novels, answered questions via email.
Q: “The Long Corner” is set in the near-past with the Trump presidency underway. That background setting, it seems to me, is foundational to the book’s examination of truth, authenticity, art, and intense — if inexplicable and problematic — charisma. What initially sparked your desire to explore these ideas?
A: Even before I began in earnest, I knew that I wanted to write a novel about self-invention and about how power can be acquired through the possession of a binary worldview (or the pretense of one) and inexplicable charisma. This combination, it seems to me, is what joins the most popular dictators. So, there’s no question that Trump’s presence played an important role in the conception of this novel, but I was more generally interested in the way zealots of all political stripes derive power from similar recipes, particularly within the world of art.
Q: As I read, the too-neat phrase “a pinch of Pynchon” kept bubbling up in my mind. The question of whether a conspiracy or complex performance or alternative reality game is underway in The Coded Garden is central to the book, and your narrator (and by extension the reader) struggles mightily to get to the bottom of things. Even the title of the novel hints at “the long con.” I wonder how you thought about the “truth” of all that Sol experiences.
A: What interests me is the ways manifestly false art is so frequently passed off as profound. Of course, the question of what is “true art” and what is “false” is age-old, and thankfully there is no device we can wave over a painting to establish its quality. The best we have is our instincts, our educations and those very few excellent critics who are in the business for love. Obviously, I have my convictions. One of those is that art that intends to be socially useful, or, worse still, to propagate a message, is very often unbearably boring. On this, Sol and I agree. So desperate is he to encounter sheer originality, he’s determined for Sebastian Light’s project to be more profound than it appears. Which, I hope, is what the reader wants, too.
It’s what I frequently find myself wanting when I see films or read novels that I’m told by “the culture” are superb works of art. Surely there is some strange and wonderful current flowing far below the surface. But so often it’s all, as you say, “a long con.” The question I often have when I come to the end of those films and put down those books, is who stands to gain from such simple arguments, such mundane work? I begin the first section of this novel with a John Berger line: “The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” Because the answer is ever-changing, we must always ask ourselves: Who makes up that ruling class?
Q: Throughout the book, we see Sol trying to understand the pull and power of various figures in his life — all of whom seek to manipulate him in one way or another. Is it possible, do you think, to rise to the top of the sea of influences — individual and cultural — in which we all swim and breathe in true individuality and authenticity?
A: Sol spends most of the novel trying to figure out where to place his allegiance. And the people who are trying to seduce him to their respective worldviews — his mother, his grandmother, Sebastian Light, amongst others — have no doubt been in their turn seduced by others. So, can one rise above the sea of influence? I don’t think so. However, I do believe an artist’s primary responsibility is to spend her whole life trying. The artists I most admire are those who, despite the utter futility of the fight, are at constant war with cliches of character, of phrase, of idea. Perhaps the best that can be achieved is a state of uneasy skepticism, where absolutely everything is worthy of scrutiny and doubt, particularly the illusions we have about our own originality and brilliance.
Q: How would you say your time in the Iowa Writers' Workshop shaped you as a writer? To what degree, if any, should we read the scenes of group commentary on paintings in the book as a nod of sorts to the workshop method of engagement with artistic efforts?
A: You may not believe me, but until this very moment I hadn’t thought about the Workshop in relationship to the novel. I see why you ask, but if anything, I see The Coded Garden as Iowa’s nightmare opposite. It’s intended as an allegory for much larger, more inhospitable worlds.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A novel about a father, a daughter, advice and aesthetic terrorism.