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A Thousand Pardonsby Jonathan Dee
Reading Group Guide
A THOUSAND PARDONS by Jonathan Dee
A Conversation with Jonathan Dee and Dana Spiotta
Dana Spiotta is the author of three novels: Lightning Field; Eat the Document, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award and a recipient of the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Stone Arabia, which was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award. Spiotta has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and the Rome Prize in Literature. She is an assistant professor in the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program.
Dana Spiotta: Helen’s apology wrangling is described as a gift, a vocation, and an accidental specialty. It is mysterious to her exactly why, yet her idea of “total submission” works. This process strikes me as almost religious.
Jonathan Dee: I’m not interested in current events per se, but I am interested in how certain aspects of social or public life that might seem ultra-contemporary actually take their place in a long American continuum. If you look at the practice of “crisis management,” and maybe squint at it a little, you can make out in the corners of your vision the ghosts or the vestiges of a much older, but still thoroughly American, form of public life, one centered not on public opinion but on religion. The theater of press conferences, Oprah sit-downs, et cetera is like an old, sacred vessel into which all this contemporary, profane content gets poured. To me, A Thousand Pardons is a book not about spin or scandal or PR or even forgiveness, but about religious heritage. But I wanted the story itself to have a smooth surface, and to wear its ideas lightly.
DS: A Thousand Pardons has a breakneck pace. Events propel the characters forward, and as soon as they react to one event, another event happens. It’s hard to resist the momentum, and then the reader wants to go back and read it all again, more slowly. Tell me why pace was so important in this book?
JD: It would be going way too far to say I wanted the novel to be a parable, but I wanted it to have some of the formal aspects of a parable or a religious tale. Parables are short and sweet; they move only forward, from event to event, as you say; they don’t contain flashbacks or other devices for re-ordering time; and there’s no pause in them for reflection or commentary or explorations of meaning. Those things exist outside the story, to be provoked by it.
DS: Helen believes abjection and confession are transformative. But why doesn’t Ben’s abject apology toward the beginning of the book work on Helen? Does he need to atone as well as apologize?
JD: She’s too angry, at that point, to accept it. And she stays angry with him for a long time; she’s been wronged and humiliated by him, so she can’t bring to his case the same sort of objectivity she brings to the dilemmas of her clients. As for Ben, being a lawyer I think he understands too well the negotiability of words; he knows that the road back for him will be about repenting not in speech but in service. He just has to hang around long enough to learn what that service will be.
DS: Public relations has cynicism built into it. It is brilliant and slightly perverse to posit such a sincere person as a public relations savant. Where did the idea come from?
JD: In order to describe a particular subculture, you might want to portray people who are typical or representative of that subculture; but to dramatize it, to make it an interesting setting for a story, you want to bring someone anomalous into that setting, to see how she conforms to it, and it to her.
DS: Did you read a lot of tabloids when you decided to write about crisis management? Public scandal is now so performed and mediated—did the machinations behind these events fascinate you? How do you know so much about it?
JD: What I read, mostly, were memoirs, first-person accounts written by veterans of the crisis-management industry. That’s always the most productive research—research into tone, into voice. Facts are nice too, but facts are more raw material than creative inspiration.
DS: Why are the stories of powerful people brought low so compelling? Has the ritual of public apology become a way for the culture to remind itself of how we define “good” behavior? Or is it just an opportunity for hypocrisy and schadenfreude?
JD: You’ve said the magic word, which is “ritual.” The culture is periodically made to yield up these figures who are first exalted, then rejected, then given the opportunity to return to grace by performing certain highly ritualized acts of public contrition. So I don’t think of it as hypocritical. It serves a genuine need. It brings the congregation together.
DS: In A Thousand Pardons, some of the characters want a break from the past and the accountability that comes with contemplating the past. But Helen remembers everything, and certainly confessing and apologizing are acts of remembering. Do you see a connection between memory and morality? In your previous novel, The Privileges, the Moreys refuse to contemplate the past and their refusal deforms them. Is this an American problem, a kind of willful amnesia?
JD: The opportunity to remake yourself by cutting yourself off from your own past, and the spiritual difficulties thereof: this has always been one of the classic American literary themes. I don’t think it will ever be exhausted. We want to moralize about it—to say that it’s impossible, that you can only run from who you are for so long—but the Moreys are really good at it, and being so good at it is ultimately what makes them so rich. Helen would not have had much use for the Mo- reys (in fact, just imagining her sitting across from Cynthia is pretty amusing). To her, the only way forward is to acknowledge your sinful past.
DS: Helen’s gift reaches its limit with the Catholic Church. Has she finally lost interest in absolving powerful men?
JD: What Helen sadly discovers is that when it comes to leading sinners to contrition, there is, as she says at one point, a problem of scale. She is happy and successful in the exercise of her spiritual power when her clients are individuals. When her clients are corporations or institutions, it’s a lot harder to know the difference between the genuine and the feigned, the real and the merely strategic. And if you can’t tell the difference, does the difference still exist?
DS: You leave the ending of the novel somewhat open, and, like the rest of the book, it happens quickly. Did you want the reader to imagine what happens next to Helen, Ben, and Sara?
JD: The reason for the abruptness of the ending goes back to the idea of the religious tale. No drawn-out endings, no reflection or interpretation or summary, no flashing forward to let us know how everything ramified. Just the characters closing the door behind them. And then you’re left to decide what it meant.
DS: You resist the impulse to have the narrator indicate the judgment the reader should have about the characters. A lot of the tension in your recent novels comes from a feeling of being very intimate with and yet slightly pulled back from the characters. Why is this narrative restraint so important to you?
JD: To me, any apparent moral judgment of one’s own characters— whether positive or negative—is always a mistake. That’s the reader’s job. I think what you describe as “pulling back” is maybe just a sort of matter-of-factness on my part about the characters, because I am trying not to judge them but to inhabit them, to see the world inside the book as they see it. Let’s not forget that I am creating these figures: the notion that I would then praise or condemn them for some attribute I gave them in the first place seems way too easy to me.
DS: Ben says he is “almost comfortable” in his disgrace, he likes the “sad, clear vision” he has. There have been some great recent books about disgraced men. Philip Roth and J. M. Coetzee come to mind. Did you think about these books when you were writing yours?
JD: Not consciously, though I am a huge Coetzee fan. If I had a model in mind, it was not a novel but a short story: “Life Is Better than Death,” by Bernard Malamud, a story about a widower who meets a young widow in the cemetery where their spouses are buried, then seduces and abandons her. That story has just the tone—the unbroken momentum, the apparent simplicity, the refusal to interpret itself—that I wanted A Thousand Pardons to have.
DS: At various points after the scandal, Sara, Ben, and Helen lurk around their Westchester town trying not to be recognized. Yet in the end they return to their house there. Why can’t they leave and start over somewhere else?
JD: I liked the idea that the house itself—not some gorgeous, Howards End–like manor that’s been in the family for generations, but just a regular, somewhat unlovely suburban house through which many families have passed—exerts its own unexpected pull. All the Armsteads, in their different ways, want to leave it behind, but in the end, one at a time, it draws them back.
DS: Although there are many serious moments in the book, there is also a lot of dry wit, sly humor, and many moments of sharp irony. There are even some elements of screwball comedy. Is it wrong to call it a funny book?
JD: I sure hope it’s funny to others, because parts of it seem funny to me. It’s a comic novel in the sense that everybody winds up reunited, sort of happily, possibly forever after.
DS: Ben’s journey takes him from a despised life of upper class security to abjection to something close to integrity. His storyline does not go the way the reader expects, partly because he refuses to let himself off the hook for what he did. Has he redeemed himself by the end?
JD: Ben’s sufferings are of course totally self-inflicted; but he needs to manufacture this sort of midlife purgatory in order to remake his relationship to himself, to his labor, and to the people he loves. He commits the sin in order to feel the guilt, because repenting for that guilt will give him a sense of purpose, which he lacks. It’s a pretty narcissistic journey, but at the end of the novel it seems like it might be working out the way he hoped.
DS: The collection of clients needing the help of Helen and particularly Malloy Worldwide is a pretty nasty group. Why does she not hesitate to help bad guys? Does she think everyone is redeemable? Are her nonjudgment and her sympathy part of what makes her special?
JD: Not to put too fine a point on it, in the scheme of the book, Helen is a priest. Not only would she never withhold her offices from a sinner, her obligation increases in proportion to the depth of the sin. She’s scared to be alone with that assemblyman, as she should be, but refus- ing his request for help is out of the question.
DS: Both lawyers and PR people use storytelling to create an effect. Yet Helen sees her own gift as a rebuke to lawyers and other PR reps. Helen feels inspired by Harvey’s claim that we all use stories to understand ourselves. Does Helen reclaim storytelling from lawyers and public relations firms?
JD: Stories are redemptive; they teach us to be humble by coercing us into seeing the world from other points of view. You could really get crazy theoretical and say that any story, properly told, is an admission of guilt. But I think what Helen is trying to reclaim is not storytelling per se, but confession. She’s trying to rescue the private from its dilution in the public. Confessions, as she remembers from her Catholic school days, require abjectness and purity of heart if they are to gain you anything at all. She doesn’t see why this should be any less true in the secular realm than it was in the religious, and for a while, it seems like she’s right.
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