‘When did the Rob Cline I know become a self-important putz?”
That’s what author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad Rick Harsch wanted to know in a recent Facebook Messenger exchange centered on his displeasure with how long it was taking me to bump his novel “The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas” to the top of my reading list.
It’s an open question when I first became a self-important putz, and I suspect different folks would have different answers.
But here’s the thing: Harsch’s writing has intrigued me since I first encountered it over two decades ago. At its best, his prose is electric — even when it is opaque and seemingly self-indulgent. You get a lot of it in “The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas” — more than 700 pages worth — to decide whether you feel the current. Area readers hip to years and years of workshop gossip may enjoy watching Harsch fictionalize a legendary former couple from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — a program about which he said in our 2018 e-conversation: “Nothing in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop shaped me as a writer.”
These days, you have to travel much farther than Oskaloosa to chat with Rick Harsch because he now lives in Slovenia. He answered questions via email.
Q: Tell me about the origin of “The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas.” What was the initial spark of this story — and how did you arrive at the notion of telling two separate but mutually informed — stories set in two different times and places?
A: I honestly don’t know where this idea came from other than a need to write a last book about the United States that was informed by my view of U.S. history and the resultant disasters.
Q: In our last interview, you referenced your “linguistic high jinks,” which were largely absent from “Voices After Evelyn” but are fully on display here. I’m interested in your creative process to produce those “high jinks” on a sentence by sentence level.
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A: I don’t “craft” sentences, so I can’t take you through such a process. The writing comes from some place I am unaware of for the most part, unless I come up with a specific idea, such as rather than laboriously depicting the Nimipuu language instead inventing a notion of how it sounds to the white man, which allows for interesting comic possibilities. And of course the Nimipuu language man, Rowor, is based on a linguistic reality of the time and place — many languages actually did come together to allow for communication. And the language of the mountain men, when rendered, is as close as I could get to what it seems to have been like from the many books about them I read before embarking on the writing.
Elsewhere, the high jinks are a bit like jazz in that much is improvisation driven with an established context by the previous sound, phrase, rhythm, etcetera. I do wonder about “obscured meaning,” though. There are too many levels of meaning in a novel for me to understand what that might refer to. I believe the meaning is never obscured at all levels, though at times the meaning must be suggested as it is in mystic texts, some of the most evocative poetry, condensed musical lyrics, chamber music, even orchestral music.
Q: The book features some Rabelaisian lists. What interests you about such lists and how do you think they advance your project — both in terms of plot and style?
A: The Rabelaisian list. I don’t know why I so often need to respond beginning from the back, but I wouldn’t refer to this as a project, nor ever think in terms of advancing the book in terms of plot and style. There is self-evidently a plot, and many styles convey the book from first page to last. I suppose I need to fall back on the Joycean notion that a novel need not be limited to one singular style. Of course that precedes Joyce. The Menippean satire, for instance, is a form of writing that developed over time as a means of penetrating a dark reality in a way akin to the attack of a wolf pack on a single large foe, dodging, feinting, tricking, the beast protecting the throat while the individual wolf goes for the Achilles, of which there are four, and far from the throat.
That said, a novel must entertain in my opinion, and a novel is made of words, and a Rabelaisian list entertains. As one reviewer suggested, the lists ought to be read aloud and without impatience. So they advance the book, to adopt your term, through the pure musical joy of language. So the first list is absolutely free and Rabelaisian — though it advances the plot with an acrostic that is announced in the line leading up to the list. Most people miss that, but I think they are caught up in the rush of words leading to the list.
The second list is a list of sexual occurrences at an Old West whorehouse, and this one is provided an Oulipian restraint: each must fit the form f and g words, alternating. The next list is a list of mines, and it is here that the lists begin to demonstrate the absurd turn reality has taken, as about half the names of the mines are real and half invented and no one could possibly pick out which is which with the exceptions of certain obvious inventions or known historic mines such as the Ophir.
From there the lists are never without a great number extant names, places, phenomena, up ’til the last list, which is entirely documentary.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My current project is an anthological novel, meaning that though I am the main author I am organically including the writing contributions of at least 70 people in the book. The title is “The Assassination of Olof Palme, a People’s Novel,” and it is about the U.S. in Europe, west, during the postwar years, with a special emphasis on the years of lead in Italy. The question it asks is whether realism has become Menippean.