Author Rachel Levitsky talks to Triple Canopy deputy editor Lucy Ives about her new novel, The Story of My Accident Is Ours, overflowing sentences, Æon Flux, Facebook, and an accessible avant-garde. Click here to listen to Levitsky reading from her novel this spring at the B. Wurtz and Triple Canopy exhibition, “History Works,” at Bureau.
Lucy Ives: John Ashbery comments that The Story of My Accident Is Ours—which is a novel, if I’m not mistaken—explores “a territory not unlike the domain of poetry.” Is this true?
Rachel Levitsky: In some ways that gets it exactly right. I understood the book to be a novel from the very beginning. It has a sustained plot device. I don’t think books of poetry do that. But I wanted to write a novel. I mean, my work is prose, but the poetic urge is always breaking in. I’m a poet because I interrupt my own prose with poetry. Whatever poetry means.
LI: Are you content to leave it there, “whatever poetry means”?
RL: No. In the same comment, Ashbery also calls my novel “prose poetry.” In effect, the book is both “like poetry” and poetry. And perhaps this is what poetry is: something that is like the thing that it is.
LI: Can you explain how poetry can be “like” what it is? In other words, what would it mean for Rachel Levitsky to be “like” Rachel Levitsky?
RL: It would mean that Rachel precedes and exceeds herself. I have a theory that poets love being amateurs. Most like to read from new work at readings; they’ll give their published book a few minutes then read from a black portfolio or notebooks or some crumpled thing. They read unfinished things most energetically, excitedly. In the time I've been a poet lots of ideas have come and gone, and now it is all about uncreativity. But the fiction world is pretty stable—in fact in the conversations about prose and novels in which I am most involved (see Gail Scott's essay “The Sutured Subject”) we grapple with the lack of discursive traction for experimental prose. The thing that many of us are doing fails to appear recognizable as genre, so that people like yourself, Bhanu Kapil, Renee Gladman, Pamela Lu, Danielle Dutton end up of floating between genres, and, I would add, between publishing venues—we’re often published and reviewed in poetry or art venues, not fiction venues.
LI: One of the major questions of your novel is what to do about the never fully explained “accident” named in the title. It’s not entirely clear that normalizing the accident is going to be a good thing. Can you (or anyone) define the accident?
RL: The short answer is that the accident is the un-historicized “event.” Individuals personalize catastrophe, and thus everyone has a relationship to accident. The book makes an ambivalent case that our personal relationships to accident can be common. (My mother, who is attempting to read the book, asked me if the accident was the accident of our birth.)
LI: Speaking of personal relationships to something held in common, the idea of language in The Story of My Accident is Ours is very specific. It seems to be about contemporary English.
RL: This also gets to the issue of the language of poetry. I think there is an idea of poetic prose that is pat and slightly annoying, a derivation of what Anne Carson does potently—a vague, open-ended, pretty thing, often fragmented, that is called poetic. Versus the shard-like fragments of Bhanu Kapil and Gail Scott, where the fragment form is used as a means of responsibility and complexity. I resisted both these types of prose in this book—both the vague, which I don’t like, and shards, which I do like. I needed the sentence—not the prose block, not the paragraph, not the form of the book—to be the architecture for the temporal structures I propose. As Tonya Foster once observed, this book is preposition-heavy. I am using contemporary English but borrow from encounters with the grammar of other languages, in particular French, Spanish, and modern Hebrew. The long sentence I use is a bit perverse in English. I had to work to write sentences that I could read aloud without suffocating. I work with excess (for which the devilish preposition is particularly useful), but when I get to a full stop I feel a sense of completion and allow it.
LI: And yet this book is a novel. How do you define novel here? I think we love novels because they create a sense of necessity, of event—of something really happening. And we’re in the way of that event, as readers.
RL: One of the defining things about this novel is location. I’m opposing novel and story. As much as this novel has story, or a notion of story, it has so much to do with location, because here there is no location. It feels mobile, something between Æon Flux and Facebook, and the subdivision. It’s the world that is created in the way that developers build the big box stores before moving in the people. It’s the mall.
LI: How do the chapters work?
RL: Chapter titles operate sometimes like poem titles, which tend to scaffold or envelope, and sometimes like essay titles, highlighting one aspect that might otherwise be too equal among others. There were certain “problems”—the problem of state and society, the problem of happiness, the problem of love (loving everyone)—and I thought of these problems as chapters. But the problems grew when I went into them, and they divided—and sometimes the chapter headings, though divided, show their linkage, and sometimes less so.
LI: The main characters of the book seem to be “I” and “we.” Is that correct?
RL: The I is the We, and secondarily the I is the failure of the We. Only towards the end does the failed I-We become We-They. As the line that defines the subject gets drawn, the lines that distinguish forms outside the subject become blurry.
LI: I wondered if there were more to be said about how the state and the law operate in this novel, or what We or I might have to do with them.
RL: This is an important part of this book. The We are those who are trying to make a distinction between themselves and the state apparatus. But they are not so outside the law as to be homines sacri, in Agamben’s sense, men banished from existence within the law. The question is, does any other “outside” of the law exist? The narrative collides with this question and the failure for the outside to either exist or not exist.
LI: Finally, what might your intervention into present-day notions of an avant-garde be?
RL: I emphatically don’t buy into the notion that avant-garde writing is inaccessible. That notion makes me nuts. There is parochialism in both mainstream writing and avant-garde writing, by which a set of requirements becomes more important than the power of intervention. I think the role of the avant-garde is not to represent the present in past tense terms, but rather to make the present in present tense forms. My skepticism about Perloff-Goldsmith-Place’s assertions that the only way to do that is with anti-subjective writing is that it reads to me as a sales pitch being played on repeat. I don’t reject the minimally mediated collections of found and organized material they advocate. I do not reject this manner of making. But we live in a time in which affective environments are the grounds for a still-inarticulate set of linguistic gestures. I favor the mongrel, the neologism, the error. I talk about grunting a bit in the novel, about the importance of listening to the sense of a thing being there, of giving time to the as-yet-to-be, the sensed but not yet visible/audible. Listening to the not-yet, which is also the noise of ancestors, is distinct from the insistence that we are making anything new. That multiplicity of noises and traditions, that is avant-garde to me and political. It seems important not to be making so much useless noise (in the rush to make something “new”) that it becomes impossible to hear, or to be with or in relation to.