Monday, March 29, 2010


Marc Lowe is a dexterous writer who reduces the space between character and setting with nimble (but artfully complex) sentences. His new ebook from ismspress, Sui Generis and Other Stories, is a collection of kinetic, surreal, and obsessively detailed stories.

For a quick taste of Marc Lowe's prose, check out a short animated feature that Marc's brother Jeff produced for "Immaterial," a short story from Sui Generis.

Marc Lowe is a featured reader at the Cousins' event on April 18:

Several of the stories in Sui Generis feature characters responding to accusations that lack justification or explanation. How do you bring accusation from element of conflict to thematic center?

I take it you are referring to pieces such as “Restless” and “Guilty,” where the narrator is in some way implicated in a crime he may or may not have committed. I should probably say that I took my cue from Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which is my favorite of Kafka’s novels (The Castle is a close second), though, the more I think about it, the less sure I am of whether such a claim would actually be true. What is true is that the spirit of Kafka pervades a lot of the work I tend to enjoy. As Nathalie Sarraute suggested in her essay on Dostoevsky and Kafka, written in the 1950s, those who have come after Kafka can do little but to retrace his steps (albeit in a variety of original and constantly updated ways, I’d assert).

As this doesn’t really answer your initial question, I guess I should also add that “uncertainty” is frequently a theme in my work. Perhaps this is so because, well, who ever knows what tomorrow may bring? None of us can ultimately “know” anything in any definitive sense. Life is multifaceted, unpredictable, the human condition a mystery. If this weren’t true, we would no longer have any need for religion, philosophy, psychology, or neuroscience. I am generally a paranoid person by nature, so that probably tends to creep into my fiction sometimes. It’s not so hard for me to imagine that someone could in fact wake up one day to find himself (or herself) transformed into an insect!

A few of the characters in Sui Generis are floundering in "fish-out-of-water" scenarios, and in "Fish: A Melodrama in Five Parts", you make the fish literal. In other stories, birds appear and carry significance. With stories so short, so precise, readers latch onto every detail, especially those that appear to recur. Should readers attach any significance to the fish and birds that populate the collection?

Well, I’d say that there is a semi-literal fish in “Fish: A Melodrama in Five Parts.” That is actually one of the earliest pieces in the collection, and was penned earlier than I’d realized when I first decided to include it. (In other words, it was conceived some months before I boarded the plane to Japan, where I was to live for the next two years of my life, though this can just be our little secret.) I guess, in a sense, one could argue that the collection goes from a semi-literal fish to those scenarios you’ve described as “fish-out-of-water” narratives. I’m not sure how exactly they might relate to each other, though. I’ll leave such things to the reader to decide. The only literal bird that comes to mind at present is the one in “Eggshells,” which is quite dead and quite frozen…

I like your use of form in several of the stories in the collection. You use timeline and other associative techniques to mold your narratives. What’s your take on story structure? How do you use (or define the importance of) structure as an element of process?

I derive a great deal of pleasure from work that does interesting things with form, as well as from work that plays with or subverts narrative conventions. While I think a story that is structured traditionally with arc, climax, resolution, etc. can definitely be satisfying, so long as it’s well done and holds my interest for reasons other than its decidedly staid shape, in my own writing—and perhaps especially in the work I was writing between 2004-2006, which is now a very long time ago—I do quite enjoy working with the bare bones of narrative. For me, the building blocks of fiction often lie in its structure, rather than in its characters, as someone like Virginia Woolf would have asserted. Of course Woolf was also very much concerned with language, imagery, etc., things I greatly care about as well.

Over the years I’ve been strongly influenced by the nouveau roman aesthetic, particularly by the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels were a sort of obsession to me when I first discovered them. They literally changed the way I thought about the potentialities of fiction, especially Jealousy, which was the first one I read. Before that I was reading and thinking seriously about Kobo Abe’s body of work (an important Japanese non-realist writer who died in 1993). Before leaving for Japan I had been writing a thesis paper that dealt specifically with Abe’s “mature” novels The Box Man, Secret Rendezvous, and also Kangaroo Notebook, his very underrated, darkly humorous final statement (some of the culture-specific bits in it literally get lost in translation, unfortunately). He does some very interesting things with structure and metafiction in those works, especially in the former two. I’d say that his influence can be felt most strongly in the first fragmentary novel I completed in 2005, a very strange metaphysical detective story set in and around various dark, labyrinthine alleyways in Japan, though it hasn’t yet been published.

You mentioned that teaching “occupies a good deal of [your] brain space”. Can you talk about how teaching workshops informs your writing.

This is an interesting question, which I’m going to have to answer in two parts. At the time I was writing these pieces I was not leading a fiction writing workshop, but was rather teaching fifteen to twenty-five English language lessons per week to Japanese businesspeople, the majority of them private. This, and the fact that most of my communication outside of these classes was done in Japanese, got me thinking a lot about how language communicates, or fails to communicate. This is not to say that I’m an expert in linguistics/semiotics or anything (far from it), but simply that this concern surfaced in some of the fictions I penned at the time, such as “00” and “Patterns.” (Unfortunately, neither of these particular fictions could be included in the e-book.) “A Good Example” was in some ways a satirical response to what it sometimes felt like to teach English to children in the public school system in Japan, a job I was often asked to do when the companies for which I taught were on holiday, but that’s probably not the sort of influence you were referring to…

In terms of how teaching fiction workshops informs my current writing practices…hmm. I haven’t yet written anything either about teaching or workshopping fiction, which is maybe a good thing! I think that running a workshop has made me think more carefully about the ways in which I critique others’ work, which may ultimately change the way I think about my own work. It’s interesting to see how others perceive the writing process, what they think works or doesn’t work in a piece (i.e. what they are reading for, what their expectations are) as opposed to what I’m seeing or not seeing in a given piece of writing. The booklists I assign probably say a lot about my own quirky tastes, in any case. I really want to open my students’ eyes to things they might not otherwise be exposed to in their other classes, such as, for instance, a prose/poetry hybrid work by Renee Gladman (The Activist), or a modern fairy tale by Barbara Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter), or a high-octane, literally electrifying nightmare by the French postmodernist writer Claro (Electric Flesh, translated by the chair of our department, Brian Evenson), or a collection of “transgressive” fictions by Kono Taeko (Toddler Hunting & Other Stories)…

Can you name some of your literary cousins?

Well, Kobo Abe and Alain Robbe-Grillet, as I’ve already said. And of course Kafka is always there in the background, paring his nails. Other writers I might claim as “cousins”—if, by cousins, you mean influences, and this is by no means an exhaustive list—are Paul Auster (especially City of Glass/The New York Trilogy), Samuel Beckett (The Unnamable!), Thomas Bernhard, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Adolpho Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Brian Evenson (I’ve been hooked ever since discovering The Wavering Knife in ’04, and am really excited to have him as my thesis advisor), Witold Gombrowicz, Mieko Kanai, J.K. Huysmans, [Comte de] Lautréamont, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Ann Quin (Berg should be required reading for anyone who likes experimental fiction), José Saramago, Bruno Schulz, Yôko Tawada, Alexander Trocchi, etc., etc.

In terms of my reading these days, I’m pretty much all over the place. I recently reviewed Rachel Kendall’s The Bride Stripped Bare (Doghorn Publishing), which I liked a lot, and Suzanne Burns’s Misfits and Other Heroes (Dzanc Books) is next on my list. Read Marie Darrieussecq’s allegorical novel of “lust and transformation,” Pig Tales, over the weekend, and have books by Rikki Ducornet, Chris Abani, and Hiromi Ito in the to-read queue. Lastly, I’ll just say that I’m excited to get my hands on Rob Stephenson’s Passes Through and Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars, both published by FC2 this spring.