If the book is getting media traction, it may be because of the underage girlfriend (the publisher wants us to learn the word “ephebophile”), though it should be noted that at 17, Chloe is “legal” in the state of Vermont, where we first meet her (age of consent: 16). But the real hubub has been the typically oroborus media/social-media self-feeding frenzy. Writing in The New York Times, Steven Kurutz used the book to discuss bringing back the now-unfashionable “literary sex novel,” before saying, “Undone may not have much to offer in the way of arousal,” and “the language throughout is curiously chaste.”
On the other hand, Eve Peyser, writing for New York magazine’s The Cut, snarked, “Getting his novel published wasn’t easy. Forty-one publishers rejected it, probably because it was just too good. He did eventually find an independent publisher, disproving the notion that things never work out for men.”
Natch, Colapinto was skewered on Twitter and is now getting Amazon reviews from people who admitted not reading the book. We caught up with him to see what the buzz was or wasn’t about. He reads from Undone at Book Culture on the Upper West Side on Wednesday, April 27 at 7pm.
There is an element of the surreal to playing and performing with one’s boss. Luckily, he’s an excellent rhythm guitarist and lead guitar player—so I and my fellow New Yorker writer, John Seabrook, are not obliged to give false compliments in order to curry favor. Not that David would fall for that anyway. We practice in a rehearsal studio in Brooklyn, so any and all roommates and family members are spared.
No, alas. I missed my chance last year when Wood and David played with Karl Ove Knausgaard at an event in Brooklyn. I suspect that if I could have made it to that gig, I might have been able to talk my way into shaking a rattle or something, or at the very least I could have scoped Wood’s skills—but I had some unbreakable appointment elsewhere. That I can’t even remember what that “appointment” was makes me wonder why the hell I didn’t just break it.
I’d love him to write about it, regardless of the verdict. Undone is really such a strange book, a weird amalgam of literary satire, genre thriller, Biblical allegory, Shakespearean tragedy and (let’s be honest) softcore porn (or porn parody?)—that even I have trouble figuring out what, exactly, I perpetrated. Maybe James could tell me.
I once heard some authority on how to write fiction (John Gardner maybe?) say: “Rule One: never make your hero an author”—which seemed reason enough to write fiction about authors. Although in Undone, my hero’s identity as a writer is more or less incidental: I needed a device to get him on Tovah, the Oprah-like TV show that sets the plot in motion, and I thought it would be fun to make him the author of one of those god-awful confessional memoirs that still jam bookstores. And I also liked the idea of having him, during the course of the story, compose a thriller novel that unwittingly parallels the very conspiracy he is falling victim to—this seemed like a nice way to give the book unity and to reflect on the theme of blindness: he “sees” the plot he is enmeshed in, without seeing it.
You called this a “dangerous” novel, but there’s no incest, Chloe isn’t younger than the age of consent, and when asked about why the book wasn’t more explicit, you said, “I can’t go there.” If you didn’t break the rules, so to speak, why do you think this novel is dangerous? What made it so hard to get this book published in America?
Oddly enough, the book’s “danger” actually derives from something far less incendiary than its faux-incest theme or Chloe’s relative youth (although, as you point out, she’s an adult). The danger stems from its frankly confronting the hardly-earth-shattering notion that heterosexual men find women sexually alluring. I had divined that this was a no-no for extended exploration in fiction before I started writing the book in 2009. I’d taken note of how contemporary male novelists had ceased to make Eros a driving engine of their plots; yes, the odd protagonist might suffer an awkward, half-guilty spasm of desire for a female (as in the very funny scenes with Chip, in The Corrections, for instance), but such impulses were not the central theme of high literary novels, they didn’t propel the action as in, say, Lolita, or Portnoy’s Complaint, or Couples or indeed just about any novel written by a man between, oh, 1945 and 1985. The pendulum had swung away from such fiction, and it seemed clear that novelists and publishers knew that you addressed such subjects at your peril.
I don’t know if this was a tacit understanding that emerged among students and teachers in creative writing programs (I never attended one), or if it was a natural outgrowth of broader campus movements against the “male gaze,” or if it was a natural reaction against the excessive priapism of those aforementioned ‘60s and ‘70s novels, or all of the above, but the phenomenon is real and incontestable: the most revered and imitated male novelists of recent years clearly made an attempt to redress the wrongs of their satyr-like literary fathers. David Foster Wallace explicitly railed against those fathers in his famous 1997 take-down of the “literary phallocrats” Updike, Roth, Mailer, et al, and he actually predicted “the end” of what he called these “magnificent narcissists” and their “sex-obsessed” novels.
Wallace and his contemporaries duly wrote exquisitely-turned domestic dramas about intra-family tensions, or they wrote movingly about pre-sexual nine-year old savants, or they wrote with jaw-dropping genius about chemically-dependent clinical depressives in recovery, or they wrote poetically about sexually ambivalent young men as likely to form a crush on another young man as on a member of the opposite sex. So I suspected, when mapping out Undone, with its subplot of heterosexual temptation, that I might be entering tricky territory. That I was right about that was clear not only from the near-universal rejection of the novel by publishers, but from the tweetstorm triggered by the recent Times article. I was excoriated by hundreds of tweeters around the world for daring to suggest that the sexual libertinism of the male-centric literary novels of the 1970s had ever abated—at the same time as being attacked for daring to revive it. I was called an “asshole,” a “creep,” I was vilified for my “male gaze,” I was called a “pedophile” and so on. So, yes, dangerous.
I can see how many young struggling writers might think, “Hell, this guy at least got 41 publishers to read the thing.” But I would humbly submit that that is only after I slugged away for 30 years in the trenches of nonfiction and fiction writing, and published two previous books (one of them a Times bestseller), and clawed my way into a position as a staff writer at The New Yorker—which I didn’t achieve until the hoary old age of 47. And yes, having a smart and well-established agent, Lisa Bankoff of ICM, helped. I landed Lisa as a blind stroke of luck way back in 1989, after I (straight off the turnip truck from Canada) managed to sell a story to Vanity Fair that got a lot of attention. Poor Lisa has had to wait a good ten years between each book that I manage to squeeze out (she takes no cut of my magazine work). But at least she can get most publishers to read my novels before they politely reject them.
Talking about the Sequoias, you told the Times, “I always knew I had to have an actual job. I had a very practical dad,” Mr. Colapinto said, adding with a laugh, “The actual job being journalism is deeply pathetic. Now I wish I was playing rock ’n’ roll.” As a staff writer for the New Yorker, you have what is surely many writers’ dream job, and perhaps one of the few remaining “livable wage” positions in journalism. Why do you consider this “deeply pathetic?”
Excellent question—and I meant “deeply pathetic” only from the point of view of a man like my late father, the son of Italian immigrants, who became chief of Urology at a major Canadian hospital (and who died, when I was 25, from Hepatitis B contracted from one of his patients). To a guy like my dad, the life of a freelance writer, no matter what magazine he worked for, did not represent stability and security—and, God knows, he was right. And he didn’t live long enough to see the Great Crash of 2008 (and the subsequent grinding Depression, which ain’t over yet), the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the decimation of print advertising, the folding of one magazine after another, the downsizing of article word-counts and the cutting of travel budgets—all of which has rendered every journalist’s life terrifyingly precarious, no matter what magazine he writes for or what enviable position he might appear to be in.
Considering Eve Peyser’s comment on The Cut, do you consider that simple trolling? Or, considering how many pieces are written on the lack of diversity, the lack of women in the industry, etc. — is it actually more difficult for men to publish now?
Peyser’s post, which seemed to be fueled by a surprising amount of hatred, was constantly reposted during the tweet-storm about my book (I see it was shared a staggering 1.2K times)—and I admit it was funny in its deadpan tone. Nobody writes the kind of novel I did and then is surprised at pushback from young, smart, ambitious women like Eve Peyser. All in all, I’m grateful that she kicked off a conversation about it—although I’d be interested to hear what she thought of the actual book which, like all the angry tweeters, it’s clear she hasn’t read (and I suspect she has no intention of reading).
To your question about whether it’s more difficult for men to publish novels now: emphatically no. It isn’t “more difficult” for men to do anything in our world—from making movies, to becoming neurosurgeons, to getting elected to public office, to publishing novels, to snagging a job as a crossing guard. As Peyser rightly says, things “work out for men”—and women, lord knows, have cause for complaint. I understand why the angry tweeters, many of whom were female, groaned, “Oh for God’s sake, here’s a guy complaining that his sex novel was turned down!” But I’m being more than mercenary and self-serving when I say that I hope some of them will actually read the book. That it is written from the perspective of a white, straight, privileged male, doesn’t mean that it cannot be a satiric indictment of toxic male lust, of the automatically-assumed primacy of male power, of the unending stupidities and scandals and squalor men (in their oblivious assumption of that power) permit their gonads to lead them into (from Cosby to Clinton to Weiner and on and on), and it doesn’t change the fact that the only morally unimpeachable characters in my novel—the only ones who act with dignity and grace throughout—are the women.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the spelling of John Colapinto’s name in a couple of instances.