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Powell's Q&A

Dave King

Describe your latest project.
My novel The Ha-Ha is the story of Howard Kapostash, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Vietnam and has not spoken, read, or written coherently since. In other respects, Howard is physically and cognitively unimpaired, and at the outset of the book he leads a life typical of many disabled people, chugging away at a menial job and keeping to himself.

Howard's placid, somewhat dull existence is interrupted when Sylvia, his high school girlfriend, saddles him with her nine-year-old son while she enters rehab for cocaine abuse. In the course of sharing his existence with the child, Howard experiences the reawakening of a range of impulses and passions, including a desire for love, family life, and someone to care for. Less affirmative are the rediscovery of his unfulfilled sexuality and the resurgence of his rage over what the war cost him.

One of The Ha-Ha's most striking characteristics is its first-person voice. The story is told from the protagonist's point of view, so readers meet an articulate, thoughtful Howard unknown to the book's other characters. It is this contrast between what Howard feels and what he is able to communicate, as well as his deep, inexpressible sense of loss, that gives the novel its power.

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
It's pretty hard to resist Zeus, with his great imagination and his penchant for shape-shifting. I have a hunch he'd go for me, too.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why, or not?
There are certainly poorer liars than I. I know because I see them floundering, and I'm embarrassed for them. They so clearly have no confidence in the veracity of what they're making up. And while I can't speak for nonfiction writers, I think the reason fiction writers lie well is because we're so ready to believe what we need to believe in order to make the plot come out right. In the hierarchy of truths, a fiction writer will allow thematic unity to trump facts and figures every time.

At the same time, I assume there are liars who lie better than I do, but how would I know? Clearly, they've managed to hoodwink me.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"[T]he public, after resisting the modernists of literature and art, is falling into line with the modernists of war..."
Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured (1927)

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, what sign would you change to and why?
Oh, please. How often have people said, "Really!? Are you compulsively exacting and rigidly organized?" Yep, I'm a Virgo and not too happy to admit it.

In fact, I am fairly exacting, and if rigidly organized doesn't quite explain the drifts of paper in my office, there's no doubt I'm tightly wound. But the problem with being a Virgo is not so much the specific qualities of the sign, but its crude billboard quality: if someone's familiar with any astrological sign at all, it's likely to be Virgo, and it's likely to lead to the same preconception: that we Virgos are uptight librarian types with more determination than imagination. Well, if that's the truth about me, I'd prefer it be discovered only after the more freewheeling persona I affect has been proven false. I certainly don't want a judgment of that type deduced from my birthdate.

Plus, the old librarian stereotype is only part of the story. Sure, we August-Septembroids are codification weirdos, but as with anyone who digs tight shoes, we also love to kick 'em off. So I'm fond of order, but I love chaos. I love hallucination and abandon and ambiguity and doubt; I love strong surf and sirens and — Virgo stereotype aside — sex, and though I'm a fairly careful driver, I prefer to ski as fast as I can. As to what sign I'd prefer, I honestly haven't paid much attention to the others. So maybe... Bullwinkle?

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book/place to start with.
Here's an author I've recommended countless times without even one of my recommendees ever adopting my enthusiasm: Anthony Powell. Even friends who care deeply about Forster and Waugh and E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse — not to mention Wharton, James, and Proust — haven't cottoned to Powell. And yet, this is not an obscure author. Powell's books, especially the twelve volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time, remain in print, so somebody besides me must appreciate what he's up to. Who are these fellow readers, and why don't I know them?

Among many reasons to love Anthony Powell, here's one: his management of the big scene. The typical Powell novel is structured around two or three long, densely populated set pieces: cocktail parties, gallery openings, battles, love-ins. Since the subject of A Dance... is cultural life in London between the 1920s and the 1960s, the tactic is well suited to accommodating the book's dozens of characters, who scheme, gossip and bicker over the course of five decades. But what puts Powell in a class by himself is the virtuosic way he expands those big scenes, presenting each exchange as a small tunnel or window through which we can see further into the story. The big scenes open onto smaller scenes, which in turn may open onto still smaller scenes and onto memories, justifications, infatuations, or feuds. Then the windows and tunnels fold neatly back up, and you're back at the party/opening/war. Each book in the series functions as a great bellows, expanding and contracting to accommodate both its own narrative and the narrative of Powell's longer, more epic tale of the making and marketing of culture. The result is a giddy but heartfelt satire quite unlike any other literary organism I know.

So go ahead. Read the first volume, which is called A Question of Upbringing. An informal survey suggests it won't be your cup of tea, but you can always try.

Name the best Simpsons episode of all time, and explain why it's the best.
This one's so cut-and-dried I imagine previous correspondents have beaten me to it. But the best Simpsons episode ever is the one where Marge lands the lead in the musical Oh, Streetcar! based on... well, you know. There's not a doubt in my mind that Apu should have won a Tony that year for his sensitive portrayal of the paper boy — but it's not just the Stanley-and-Stella stuff that totally rocks. The whole backstory, in which Maggie has to enter day care because Marge is so busy rehearsing, is a busy, busy reference-fest: Hitchcock's The Birds, Bridge on the River Kwai, and so on. I like the book I wrote a lot, but I can't help wishing I'd also written this.

When I was a kid, my parents owned a lot of original cast albums. I learned "Trouble" and "I Remember It Well" and "Luck Be a Lady" by heart at an early age, and it's likely that clever musical theatre lyrics were my first exposure to actual wit. (It's possible, too, that I once used an umbrella as a prop while singing "If Ever I Could Leave You" as I swept across the sunlit living room, but I would have had to be alone in the house for such a thing to occur, so there were no witnesses.) These days, though I live in New York, I rarely go to the theatre, and the only song I've memorized in recent years is the show-stopping cast-of-thousands grand finale from Oh, Streetcar! which goes like this:

You can always rely on the comfort of strangers / To keep you from harm and protect you from danger/ [Marge, alone but waving from a departing trolley] So take a tip from Blanche you won't forget!/ [Chorus — BIG finish!] A stranger's just a friend you haven't me-t-t-t-t-t!
Very good for singing to cats, no umbrella required.

What do you dislike most?
After war, famine, and genocide, I'd have to say discourtesy. Thanks for asking.


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