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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

December 3, 2020

In Conversation

Little Shards of Story: In Conversation with Stephanie LaCava and Chris Kraus 18 minute read

Photograph courtesy of Stephanie LaCava
Photograph courtesy of Stephanie LaCava
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Stephanie LaCava's recently published novel, 'The Superrationals', draws us into the world of a modern young woman, Mathilde de Saint-Evans, looking to discover herself, her longings, and her ambitions in the art worlds of New York and Europe. In conversation with American writer and filmmaker, Chris Kraus, Stephanie and Chris discuss 'The Superrationals', the magic and beauty of coincidence, and Kraus’ current projects.

The following is a conversation over Zoom, hosted by After 8 Books on November 12, 2020. It has been edited and condensed.

Stephanie LaCava

Author Stephanie LaCava

Author Chris Kraus

Chris Kraus: And do you see coincidence as a spiritual practise?

Stephanie LaCava: I definitely do. In more ways than one. I was raised by parents—one parent—who admittedly didn't believe or not believe in god, and rituals were important. Sort of again, trying to make some kind of control when I had no rules. Nothing to sort of hold me down. And I think that for me, the most hopeful thing in an otherwise very, very depressing existence is coincidence, because it's this belief that something will present itself to you that will change the course of whatever you felt was intended. There's something magical about that.

SL I'll start with Robert's list, which is kind of like a funny poem. The premise was this idea of when you have someone in your life who you want to tell things to, but you know you can't all the time, so you write them down. And this is a list that he made. Part of it while Olympia was alive and part of it post-mortem: things he would want to tell Olympia, but he no longer can.

“Crimson red to red, puns abstraction all not definitive versus pictorial alphabets. Text as still life. Erotic sexual discursive. Objective is to defer and resolve. Obtain ideas of work without intention or inquiry. What is coded communication? No woman touches your toe. It makes me sad and happy at the same time. To talk to everyone is to talk to no one. Mall grab. Screen grab. Techno paganism. Zozo like the devil but also that Japanese site that made that guy rich. Don't work for my house, my house works for me. Inner tubes. Punk and academic. Play on digits. Edit and aware of the digit. Edit and aware of the edit.
American postmodernist. Cobra baby and elephant. With the number two rooms to go. Cult of personality. Make things people don't need. Renegotiating romanticism. Outside the system. Back in it. What happened to Karen Mulder? Michael Jordan. Number 23. Boston Latin, first public school. Sense of an ending. Reputation. It's not about cool things, it's about cool moves. Notes in camp. Tree. Feminist avant garde collected by misogynist. Inversion of taste. Lack of responsibility. Integrity of work. Female. Glamorous. Cypher-surface. Powerful female bonds. You misunderstand me. Not pick up calls. Negative biography. A list of what you say no to. Don't access that side, live in the glamour. Short story.
Decisive and move on. Leave and never come back. Never go back. Another lost. Post agenda. Origin story. Visual and verbal wit.”

CKStephanie, thank you. That was great reading. Can we talk about some of the things that come up in your writing and in this book? I wanted to start with coincidence, which is all through the book. Right up until the design of the book, you found that amazing Guibert photograph that almost exactly described a phantom photograph that was taken in one scene. You weren't aware of this photograph, were you?

No. This was the craziest thing that happened. When I tell people this, they don't believe me. But I had no idea that this photograph existed, and I was looking up images of Isabelle Adjani because I love her and I wanted to find movie stills and things. And then, I came across this photograph and she had the ribbon in her hair first of all, which caught my attention because that's in the book. Even stranger was that when I went to do research, I discovered it was taken at the Jardin des Plantes, which I had already written into the book as the location where the photograph was taken. It totally blew my mind and obviously, perhaps it speaks to that sort of psychic quality of art making.

It's a magical process. The writing of the book results in the discovery of this photograph, which was always there from the beginning but not seen.

So, I wanted to ask you some stuff about what holds the story together. I was thinking about your first book [An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris] this morning, the memoir that you wrote in 2012 where you frame the autobiography of your early teens by cataloguing certain strange objects that were important to you then. A skeleton key and a whale's tooth and a cardigan sweater. The objects were like the anchoring of the book and of your consciousness. In The Superrationals, coincidence is like the invisible through line for all the different little shards of story that come up in the book.

And so I'm wondering, how did you arrive at these framing strategies? Does the framing strategy come first? Or does the material come first? How does that work? At what point did you make that choice?

Well, it's funny. The memoir I find a bit embarrassing because obviously it's “a childhood memoir,” which kind of doesn't make any sense to begin with. But, it does make sense if I look at it in perspective of the new book.  I was sort of obsessed with control as a kid. I think because my parents’ sort of took away any semblance of control in the way we moved around the world. The way they structured our lives. The way they made choices. The way we were always alone. And I felt very out of control. And so, for me it took finding something sort of tangible or that was actually in my path as a talisman or a way of structuring the story which does come around again if you think of like the nouveau roman, Alain Robbe Grillet, and the idea that objects can be plot.

And I think that is actually the exact opposite of the idea of coincidence, leading something forward. 

Coincidence is so intangible.

Exactly. And I think I always wanted to believe in coincidence. And I do, just like the photograph. I mean, that's the only hopeful thing, really, that there are coincidences. There are run ins. There are psychic things you don't know about right away and that you can change, or the past corrects itself. But I think in the first book, it was important to sort of ground myself, a way of locking down these scenes. Finding these things. Getting control of an otherwise out of control sort of mentality.

Right. 

And I guess that also speaks to then me trying to work with some kind of outside restraint, which is actually, again, the opposite of coincidence. The idea that you can have a mathematical formula in writing directly contradicts the idea of this intuitive, sort of flowing process.

Yeah. You mentioned the Oulipo before as an influence on you as a writer.

I felt like when I originally started this book, I wanted it to be sort of like a palindrome in the plot — that you could fold it over and it would repeat itself. Which, in the end, I guess it kind of accomplished, but originally, I was much more constrained by it. At one point, I was trying to make the last word in every chapter become the first word in the next.

Oh, like a sestina. That's beautiful.

... all kinds of different things like that. I had all these books on word games and anagrams and palindromes, and I was spending my time rearranging letters and secret messages and all of these things. And in the end, that kind of fell away. But that was something that I found really interesting at the beginning.

Yeah. Maybe those games are also kind of triggers into another state of consciousness?

100 percent. 

They're kind of a mobilising force. A way of kind of gathering your energies and kind of lifting it out of the everyday onto another plane. And that was the next thing I wanted to ask you about — Mathilde describes the uncanny as unexpected events that result in unexpected connections between people that make us feel less alone. And it's coincidence that drives the various stories across the book. 

So do you think like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in The Third Mind that there's an invisible zone of coincidence that exists always that we can enter at any time with the right mental discipline? And do you see coincidence as a spiritual practise?

I definitely do. In more ways than one. I was raised by parents—one parent—who admittedly didn't believe or not believe in god, and rituals were important. Sort of again, trying to make some kind of control when I had no rules. Nothing to sort of hold me down. And I think that for me, the most hopeful thing in an otherwise very, very depressing existence is coincidence, because it's this belief that something will present itself to you that will change the course of whatever you felt was intended. There's something magical about that. 

Maybe I'm not answering your question very well, but I definitely believe in writing too, as a way towards it, at least for me. I'm not a very good formal writer. I'm not trying to be. It’s like an exorcism and then it is figured out along the way. Does that make sense in context?

That's beautiful. I mean, coincidence kind of has a way out of ourselves, right?

Yeah.

And then, this other unexpected thing happens. It can't be explained in any logical way.

And it's the only thing really that would keep you going is the fact that could happen. And so what is that thing, and how do we find that thing? Will it find us?  I think things like that happen all the time. I hope.

Yeah. There's this great romance of chance. 

I wanted to talk also about the art world aspects of the book. Mathilde works in the auction house alongside the girls. You know your Greek chorus of unbearable, expensively educated gossips who seem to be sitting there temporarily in between finishing college and getting married. But Mathilde is a true believer in art. And one of the through lines that runs across the novel is a series of excerpts from Mathilde's art history pieces, right? She's always quoting her art history pieces. And in it, she writes about Carolee Scheemann, Mike Kelley, and Cy Twombly. She writes about the way the work of art is actually a vessel waiting to be filled by whatever the audience projects onto it. And I really love that idea. That feels so, so true.
It's almost as if the thesis haunts her, reminding her of what drew her to the art world in the first place. And sometimes, the excerpts feel like a bit of critique of the distance between artistic ideals and the daily practice of art business. 

So, can you talk about those things? Briefly, the idea of the vessel that's filled by what we project onto the thing, and then second, what you're doing here with the use of the thesis in the book.

One other thing quickly that you mentioned above is this idea that [the girls] are in this job sort of as a placeholder between this ridiculous education that has found them looking up links of shopping online or whatever, and then finding a husband.

It's just this very bizarre timeline that seemed important to comment on. And that leads directly to the idea of the importance of the art. And yeah, I mean, she believes in it but she's kind of surrounded by people who have taught her, “You need to survive. And in order to survive is almost to give that up. Like her mom tells her, "You can't be a dancer. Don't be a dancer." Someone else tells her, "You can't be an artist. How are you going to make a living?" All of these people around her are telling her to give up on that. It's not practical. Believe in the practical. Don't believe in the magic or whatever you want to see.
I was playing with the projection and the artwork, also with the form of the book itself. Even all these reviews, people are seeing whatever they want to see within the thing and that's also a bit of psychoanalysis as well. It's what we do in relationships. We project onto the thing whatever we're intending to see, or we want to see, or we want to believe. And I think that's why, for example, visual art can be a little easier to do that with because you don't have the words actually written down in front of you. And I think the book talks a little bit about that too. Am I not answering the question directly or …?

No. But you're answering a more interesting question that I didn't even bother asking.

And I think that those artists were important touchstones to [Mathilde] for many different reasons. I think Cy Twombly, in particular, because a lot of the Greek words that he would write on canvases are what I was thinking of at the time and those allusions. And then, I was also thinking a lot of in terms of Mike Kelley: childhood. The idea that we all sort of come back to all of these — what happened to us, what we're trying to find. And he has these harems as well that are collections of things much like the first book. They were a way to catalogue, collect, put in line, figure out where your things go. Which is what museums do as well.

So yeah, you're talking here about how art gets historized, right? What you just said is that people feel so threatened when they're confronted by an art object because it has no words and they don't know what to think or say. And of course, that's where we come in when we write our criticism and art writing. And I'm just curious, Stephanie. We've never talked about this before, but your relation to visual art — in your other work, you do write about visual art quite a lot, right? Did you always like art? Did you always get it? What was it?

Oh my god, this feels so ridiculous to say. Well, I mean I was kind of forced into it, in a way, when I was young, and my family moved overseas. Every weekend, my mom and dad would just drop us off at a museum, or be like, "Stay here. This is what you're doing." We didn't have friends. 

And I hated it. I didn't want anything to do with it. But I guess, maybe through osmosis or again, that sort of unconscious whatever, it became what was always around. And something that I thought about. I was completely discouraged from having anything to do with it myself, as well as practising writing as a craft. So that wasn't an option.

It was always a part of my life in some way, always important to my parents as something but not something that could be practised or pursued by me.

So, if you have a free day in a random city, you’re someone who would actually voluntarily go to an art museum?

100 percent. There's that book [From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler] that's popular with American kids about the boy and girl who sleep at the Met. I mean, that was my dream when I was little. I was like, "I want to be in a museum at nighttime,” which is really twisted and weird. That was my goal: to run away and hide and no one would find me and then I would get locked in.

That sounds wonderful. Okay. Let me go back to some of the questions I thought of earlier. This part is called Critique. It’s been suggested that The Superrationals is implicitly an epitaph through the art world. A certain kind of money and privilege, a witty commentary on an elite. But I don't see things changing in the art world that way anytime soon. To me, the fascination of the novel is the way it probes the turmoil under the surfaces of these very polished lives. 

Mathilde is a classic, light heroine, but the hole that's left in her heart by her mother's death is incredibly real. Can you talk about your relation to the art world in the book? And how did you balance dark and light? 

The setting wasn't gratuitous, but it was to probe the questions like the ones you’ve asked. It wasn't like, oh, let's set it in this glamorous place where all these things are happening because it's interesting and fun. It was like, let's set it there so that you see the sort of inconsistency or underbelly of that, of what is actually being passed among these people and what that means. What it means to be “working" in this way. 

[Mathilde] was just this sort of doll that had these roles she had to play. She had to show up, and it involved nothing of her own spirit or taste or interests or what moved her. Nobody cared. Nobody wanted to know. 

And I purposefully wanted it to be a quick read, a very light story. A lot of people have told me they've read it twice, which makes me very happy. You can sort of zoom through it as a mystery. You want to find out what happens. Everyone is kind of an asshole. Everyone is really funny. You hate them all. And then you read it again and stop for a moment and sort of see the underlying current of what's going on, or what's being challenged by virtue of simply the presentation of the story itself.

I love that idea — that there can be two completely separate parallel readings of the book. And both are true.

If you want to look for the puzzles, you can. If you'd prefer to just read the book and pass it along to someone else then you can do that, too.

What made you come up with the title, The Superrationals? How did you get there?

I love the idea of game theory, in the sense of people trying to play chess with one another. To know what one person's going to do versus what another person is going to do, particularly in romantic situations that impact business or vice versa. And I was really into reading about game theory and this idea of the prisoner's dilemma. Does it change what you want knowing what someone else is going to do? Can we ever know what someone else is going to do? 

People often misread the title to think what I am saying is that everyone is very rational in their thinking, which actually wasn't the intention originally. But that's funny in its own way, because when do humans ever behave rationally? And the book is so much about emotions, which are the opposite of rational thoughts or logical deductions.
Can I ask you some questions? I want to know what you're working on now and I think everyone would love to hear that, too. I'm super interested and intrigued.

Okay. Well, I just started. I’m not writing this book yet, but I've been researching it all summer. The last 10 years or so, I've been spending time in Northern Minnesota in the summer but also at other times of the year. My partner has lived up there part-time and was working in social services up there for a couple of years. And while I was up there in January 2019, there was this very dramatic murder that took place among three teenagers killing an acquaintance. They were all on methamphetamine. They were all up for like two days before the murder actually took place. And these little isolated towns, these kinds of acts of violence are actually increasingly frequent but still very, very shocking. 

And we have a cabin up there in the woods and it's like, oh, look at the loons. There are the snow geese. The trumpet swans. It's a beautiful nature retreat. You have to go to the town to go to the supermarket, but otherwise you don't have much to do with it. And I realised that the world of what goes on in these northern midwestern towns is completely different. I started to become curious about it and about the people that were passing through. 

Actually, Phillip, my partner, was working in a juvenile detention centre. And what the story was of the life that passes through there, and this army of kids that have grown up only in foster care because their parents and grandparents are all addicted. So I was up there for three months, continuously doing research about these particular kids, their backgrounds, their families, their stories, and also the case in the larger community. I'm about to start working on that as a book now.

Wow. And it's going to be nonfiction?

No, no. Actually, I think it's going to be more like fiction. I think it's maybe going to be kind of a continuation of Summer of Hate.

Amazing.

With the characters, Catt Dunlop and Paul Garcia.

Oh, amazing. 

For a long time, I was living in the Adirondacks in the mid-80s and then writing about that in my novel, Torpor. I've always been interested in these kinds of remote places in the U.S., of rural poverty. 

I mean, the differences in the Southern Adirondacks, what drew us, and I think a few other outsiders there, was there was still an intact local culture. Cable television was still new at that time. And people didn't all necessarily have it. And it was actually amazingly kind of an oral tradition of stories that went back to people's grandparents, great-great-grandparents. 

I did a video called Travelling at Night about the Underground Railroad, and some of the stories of the Underground Railroad were told word-of-mouth. They hadn't even been written down. They were just passed down stories. The community was that isolated and that involved with each other. That incestuous.  Of course, that's all completely blown away now and changed. And it's just an internet culture.

So yeah, this is like an ongoing interest. What happens outside our cultural bubbles in these other parts of the world.

Can I ask you one more question in terms of that and the storytelling idea? Is there still an oral tradition? Are you hearing stories? Are you hearing different versions of the same story? 

No. There's no oral tradition at all. People have no memory.

Wow.

The people that I'm speaking to cannot remember what happened last week.

Wow. So how are you handling that? Are you looking at the digital footprint of these people?

Yeah. I have a lot of digital stuff, but the police reports are actually a very good forum. The police reports read like their autobiography, because the police are involved all the time. The police always have to write up a formal report. So on the one hand, I can look at their social media. On the other hand, I can look at the police accounting of these same events. And then the third way is asking people themselves what they remember, which is usually not very much… like all of us. They remember feelings, but they don't remember facts. And for someone who has had a very kind of chaotic and stressful life, that's even more true. The facts really just elude you. And in your first book, I think you're talking about, in a way, getting on top of reality to your relation to these objects as an anchoring. I think in all cases in life, there's kind of a mastery of the facts that’s the first way of overcoming complete powerlessness.

And it also makes me think of how when you have trauma, the first thing you do is sort of forget the facts.

You remember the feelings. It’s also hard to get past the ‘motivational speak’ that people speak in. If you ask them any personal question, they kind of ‘motivational slogan poster speak’ what they think they're supposed to say about things.

That's so interesting. Have you had two different people repeat the same thing back to you in that vein?

Yeah.

Wow.

I mean, it takes a lot of being there and hanging around to get beyond that. So that's what I've been trying to do.

Amazing. Is there anything that you want to talk about that you feel like you've been wanting to address in your writing, or as an essay? Or anything that's brewing that you think would be interesting for us?

I wanted to compare notes a little bit about our art writing activities.

Okay. Let's do it.

And asking how you feel about art writing at this moment. I've gone off it. I can't do it anymore.

I'm not very good at it. I probably should go off of it.

I would disagree. But in the last year, every time I've been asked to write that kind of essay, I have to turn it down because I find that I can't ... something like the words are choking in my throat. There's that giving yourself this authority that I find really hard to believe in right now. 

And when did that happen?

About a year ago. I’d rather do something to support the work. Now I suggest just having a conversation. An artist-to-artist conversation the way we are now. I think anything that you think and feel about the work is going to come out in conversation, but to sort of write it down in any authoritative way at this moment feels really false to me.

In the last year or so. I mean, it is what you say about that these false readings can be made. The problem is that really what we're doing when we talk or write about art is we're just kind of giving a read out of how it struck us at that moment. It's kind of arbitrary and it's by no means definitive. And yet there's this expectation, or these essays are then taken as something definitive. And I don't like definitive. I don't believe definitive now.

I also feel lately [that] a lot of references bother me because there's become this thing that like oh, if you have these references, if you pull them out, you come from this, and now everyone can have the references either on a superficial level from just seeing images, let's say, or from a level of actually having experienced the work. And then pulling out these references doesn't make you the better writer. It doesn't make you come to a conclusion. These paragraphs of references of citations. I mean, I agree with you to some degree. It feels like there needs to be a stripping back of people wanting to hear themselves talk when they're writing about someone else's work.