The music precedes the meaning: An interview with Joseph Cardinale

Hilary Plum
October 15, 2011
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The latest issue of the Kenyon Review Online included my review of Joseph Cardinale’s debut, The Size of the Universe (FC2, 2010). To follow up on everything this book got me thinking about, I asked Cardinale to come do an interview here as well.

HP: These stories made me think about how much narrative relies on claims of causality—x causes y, y happens because of x—and how much these can be faith claims, though fiction may need to or choose to treat them as definite, irrefutable, some sort of science. I’m interested in thinking about The Size of the Universe in terms of these two thematic pairings: causality and narrative; faith and science. I was wondering if you could talk about these ideas of cause and effect, and what can be proved versus what must be believed, and how (to make my big question bigger) this relates to storytelling.

JC: I see storytelling as a pursuit of knowledge. And I think in this sense we’re all by nature storytellers. By that I mean that on a basic level all stories—not just written ones, but the ones we tell ourselves in our minds as we move from moment to moment—are investigative answers to the kinds of questions that begin with the word why. And these are of course the same questions that give rise to scientific and religious interpretations of existence. We need answers. We need to explain to ourselves what exactly we’re doing and why we’re doing it. So all stories are in essence explanations designed to fill that void between thought and act and idea and reality. And if the explanations seem truthful, we find a kind of comfort in them. At least that’s one way of thinking of all this. The act of explaining a sequence of events through the prism of narrative requires linking together a chain of causes and effects. The king dies and the queen dies because of grief. I’m writing this answer right now because I want people to read it. That’s a fair enough definition of plot. And as storytellers we can’t escape the trappings of plot because that process of causal reasoning is inextricably bound up in the syntax of our thoughts. But we can also see that all the plotted explanations that language yields are inevitably insufficient, if only because all stories are finite. They fail to explain. Obviously, the queen didn’t die just because of a broken heart; that’s a lie, a simplification, and that’s why it’s not a very good story. That’s why ambiguity and complexity—the willingness to leave the reader in a cloud of unknowing, rather than asking us to have faith in simplistic explanations of motive, meaning, event—is so essential to good stories, whether they take the form of fiction, religion, history, whatever. All stories are incomplete lies, but some come closer to evoking that truthful mystery than others. I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s statement that the purpose of art is to refresh the reader’s awareness of “the mystery of existence.” I’m reminded too of the cosmological argument for the existence of God: that the mere fact of a causal chain logically compels us to the conclusion that there must exist a First Cause—but then how do you explain the First Cause? And in the same way, sort of, the scientific method circles us back to new versions of the same old koanic questions: What was before the big bang? What is the universe expanding into? Anyway, I think the point of fiction is to compassionately guide the reader to a contemplative recognition of these kinds of foundational existential conundrums. Of course, all these conundrums emerge from a left-brained analytic framing of experience—from the part of the mind that relentlessly separates this from that. In my book, this kind of divisive approach to the pursuit of knowledge comes through both in the obsessive self-consciousness of all the narrators, and in the recurring images of lines, which in some way represent the kinds of causal chains of reasoning I’m talking about. And lines also are walls: drawing a line means dividing one thing from another. But viewed from another angle—and I tried to literalize this idea at the end of “May I Not Seem to Have Lived,” when the narrator looks through the telescope—a line becomes a point. And the point reveals the mystical truth that all is always one, or something like that: There’s no distinguishing line between cause and effect, life and death, past and future, self and universe. The First Cause is the universe itself. But to see the point, you need to see the line, and vice versa. And so throughout the book, I tried to show the narrator self-consciously wavering back-and forth between these two understandings, without committing to one or the other.

HP: The back cover describes The Size of the Universe as a novel in stories, but I found that I thought of it more as a collection of stories, though stories that were in close conversation with one another. Could you talk about what guided you as you assembled these stories into a whole?

JC: I guess in terms of traditional definitions, it’s more of a story collection than an episodic novel. That’s how most readers seem to see it. And it’s true that the stories were all originally conceived of as stand-alones. I assembled them together after they were written—and only during the editing phase did I start emphasizing the natural thematic conversations between them. I presented it as a novel in stories because I wanted to invite the reader to see the book as a unified whole. In practical terms, the key point here is simply that the sequence is really important to me. I think you have to read the stories as a sequence, one after another, first to last, if you’re going to feel the full effect. And that’s not so true of most story collections. That might be the sole meaningful distinction between a novel and a collection, in fact. In a more general sense, I like to think that the both-ness of the book—in other words, the fact that you can read it as both a unified novel and a collection of disparate pieces—somehow reinforces and rephrases the thematic questions I talked about in the above: How do you separate one self from another? At what point does one chain of narrative end and the next one begin? Ideally, the reader ends up unconsciously asking another form of the questions that preoccupy the narrator: A left-brained reading sees a series of separate stories and characters, whereas a right-brained reading seems through the seeming divisions and finds everything taking place in a single omnipresent consciousness. For example, the narrator is only named in the first story, at the end of which he dies. So if you decide to see the narrator of the next story, “The Great Disappointment,” as an enduring extension of the same consciousness that narrated the first, which is how I usually see him, then you’re sort of abandoning a materialistic take on the mind. You’re seeing the second story as perhaps taking place in some kind of purgatorial dream world. And then in the final paragraph of that story, the narrator imagines walking through a forest, and in the beginning of the next one, “Art in Heaven,” the narrator is walking through a forest. So maybe “Art in Heaven” takes place in the imagination of the previous story’s narrator? I don’t know. And I guess it doesn’t really matter. But I tried to assemble the pieces together in ways that would tempt the reader into filling in the interpretive spaces between them.

HP: There is an extraordinary ear at work throughout this book, a beautiful sense of sound. Can you talk about your relationship to sound and its logic, how each story finds its sentences’ rhythm and musicality? What writers serve as inspirations for you in matters of sound?

JC: Thank you! That’s a hard question to answer. I do pay obsessive attention to sound and rhythm when I’m writing. And when I’m reading I pay the same kind of attention. I want the sentences to sound right. I want the sequence of sentences to build on one another and bear the rhythmic weight and dimension of whatever the meanings are. At a basic level, fiction is a form of music. That’s obvious enough: Words make sounds, and sounds strung together are songs. Reading is singing. But how do you know what sounds right? Where does that compass come from? It’s a lot harder to talk meaningfully about sound than it is to talk about things like plot and theme and structure, because the sense of sound—of what sounds right and what doesn’t—seems to come from nowhere in particular. It’s not guided by a defensible method or conceptual formula. It’s just kind of there. And I think part of the writer’s task is to listen to it and obey it and be guided by it. Like: If I decide to write a long sentence right now, if I decide to stretch this sentence out with for another few words, I can’t honestly say that I’m making that decision because I want to achieve a calculated effect—or if I do say that, I’m only saying it after the fact. I didn’t consciously decide to write a long sentence; I heard the space for the words, and then I consciously filled it. And the strange part is that the space seems to come before the words. If you asked me to hum out loud the melody of an answer to this question, I think something like the melody of the above sentences would have arrived easily and unbidden, because that’s the rhythmic form my thoughts end up taking toward the subject. The hard part is figuring out which words fit the melody’s meaning. That’s the part that requires the labor of listening and recording, starting and stopping, growing sentences outward and trimming them back inward. All that said: in the end, whatever sense of sound I can call mine must come in part from the works of writers whose feel for language has inspired and infected me. And there are too many of these to mention without leaving too many other ones out. I can maybe point to a few specific texts that I remember having made a big impact on me at different moments: Beckett’s prose and plays, Hemingway’s stories, particularly the ones called “Now I Lay Me” and “In Another Country,” the Quentin section in The Sound and the Fury, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, all of Noy Holland’s stories, particularly “Orbit” and “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose.” And there are countless others. I remember feeling transcendently spellbound, for example, the first time I opened to a page of Beckett’s prose in high school: the opening pages of Molloy, buried in the back of a big Norton anthology. I had never heard of Beckett. And I had hardly any idea what the narrator was talking about, even after a few reads. But I kept returning to it because the incantatory pulse and rhythm of the sentences seemed to hold out the implicit promise of meaning and mystery. And in vastly different ways, I think all the really great stuff end up casting the same kind of propulsive, prophetic, mysteriously authoritative spell. All of them strike some kind of preconscious chord in the mind. The music precedes the meaning. The truth dazzles gradually.

HP: The Size of the Universe is your first book. Now that it’s been out a year I’m interested to know how it has felt to look back on, to think of as a beginning.

JC: A part of me still can’t believe the book exists. I still feel a surge of blessed gratitude when I think about it, because I know how many more worthy works don’t end up finding the form of a published book, and I know how many unworthy ones do. And because I honestly wasn’t writing with a serious expectation that it’d end up finding a publisher or an audience beyond my immediate frame of reference—at least not until the final stage of revision. Before that, I always felt more as if I was writing for myself, or at most for a handful of readers I knew personally, and the pressures that produced the original drafts were in-the-moment practical ones like assignment deadlines for workshops or whatever. And in the process of all that I came to a lot of vaguely principled romantic convictions about how the act of writing had to intrinsically justify itself. How the worth of a work of art bears less than zero relationship with the audience’s response, assuming there’s an audience at all. How art is a communication with and confirmation of some divine constellation of formal truths that persist regardless. Like: If Emily Dickinson’s poems had been discarded after her death and no one ever read them, they’d still remain inextinguishably beautiful. That kind of thing. And I still believe all that. But seeing the book come into existence as a concrete object—as something I can hold in my hands and give to people I know, as something that occasionally miraculously travels to the hands of people I don’t know, as something that can provoke an out-of-the-blue hey-I-read-your-book-and-liked-that-part-when email from an old friend or relative—complicates all those idealistic convictions in ways that are hard to describe and hard to ignore. In a practical sense, I guess I have a less inward and insular and egocentric sense of audience and purpose than I used to. I still feel as if I’m writing for a small community of readers, but that community has expanded both literally and figuratively. And I hope it keeps expanding.

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