Saturday, August 16, 1997

Q&A Robert Stone: Drugs, Ocean, Vietnam


First appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

 "Oh, Frank, you lamb," she said, "what did your poor mama tell you? Did she say that a world with God was easier than one without him?"
 She gave Father Hooke a last friendly pat and turned to Camille. "Because that would be mistaken, wouldn't it, Camille?"
    "Miserere" ("Bear and His Daughter")

HB: Reading you brought to mind Herman Melville's lines: "Man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought."

RS: That's a tremendously bitter quote. Some of my characters climb all the way to insanity. Most never really lose reason -- in a way it's part of the torture that they endure.

All the people I write about think they have some glimpse of the transcendent but can't quite keep it focus, can't quite catch hold of it. It drives them mad -- and to alcohol and drugs. As is notorious, my people are always turning on and getting loaded. My contribution to the war on drugs was to have people take it easy in "Outerbridge Reach." But it's true; my people are druggy, and drink a lot. It's a metaphor for that transcendent level of things that we have a hunger for, a necessity for, that we can't really get hold of.

 HB: For a lot of your characters transcendence seems equivalent to annihilation. Like Browne in "Outerbridge Reach," they have their most powerful visions when they are about to die.

RS: It happens. Johnson made his famous joke: "The prospect of being hanged at sunrise concentrated the mind." I don't believe that. Stark fear ever did anything for any body's good sense. But it's true that extreme situations sometimes produce insights -- at great cost.

HB: I'm sure I'm not the first to call you a Gnostic, in the sense that everything in this world seems to be in the way of some deeper truth, and that getting to it means, or could mean, death.

RS: It could, but I don't celebrate death, I don't see myself as a nihilist. My characters live in a kind of hope, a desperate hope, but hope. Browne doesn't surrender to his own desperation, and what his wife does is to try to avenge him, to follow though.

HB: She's going try to try to sail around the world.

RS: And she's going to succeed. I based her doing that on a story of a woman by the name of Mina Hubbard who, when her husband died trying to cross Labrador to Hudson's Bay at about the turn of the century, decided she would do it. She looked like one of those turn-of-the-century pre-Raphaelite princesses who would break if you breathed on her too hard, but as a matter of fact she was a very tough farm girl from Ontario. And she succeeded, she crossed by herself with the same Indian guide who had accompanied her husband. There's a great nonfiction book about this called "Brave Heart."

The idea of Ann Browne completing what her husband fails to do really comes from Mina Hubbard. I think there's something inspiring in that, and something positive

HB: I think what you demand of your characters is ordeal. It's extreme demand but it's got a long religious lineage, and it's not cynicism.

RS: I'm not cynical. Ironical, yes. I live by irony, in a way, and haven't written anything that didn't have humor in it. Irony and humor -- you don't have much without them.

There's a kind of humor that's essentially ironical in nature, and that's the kind of humor that's congenial to me. But I think for example it's much more difficult to behave decently than people realize. Just to behave in an ordinary decent fashion, to act well, is tremendously difficult. As we often find out when we get into complicated, difficult situations, to act decently we discover this is much tougher than we might have thought.

And I believe that nothing is free. That in itself is a metaphysical truth of some complexity. I don't know why it's true but I know it's true. Nothing is free. You pay off on one end or the other for everything.

HB: Well, It's certainly true of drugs.

RS: What's true of drugs is true of everything in life. And what's true of the ocean is true of everything in life.

HB: You've got a lot of water in your books and a fair amount of drowning.

RS: A lot of water, a lot of ocean.

HB: When you talk about the difficulty of acting decently, I think about "Dog Soldiers" and the things you've said about Vietnam. You were incapable of taking a simple stand. You couldn't partly because you were there and saw for yourself. And so you wrote a novel, "Dog Soldiers," in which heroin is the centerpiece, being stoned the centerpiece. But in a world as confusing as that, how do you take a moral stand at all?

RS: I think I have somebody say, when describing the scene in which they decide to eliminate the elephants: "In a world where elephants are pursued by flying men people are just naturally going to want to get high."

HB: But in a world where you just naturally want to get high, where is there a moral place to be?

In "Dog Soldiers," Converse -- now that's a very stoned name by the way . . .

RS: Thanks.

HB: Converse says to Hicks, "Let laugher flee. This is the place where everybody finds out who they are." Hicks shakes his head and replies, "What a bummer for the gooks."

Well, how nice that we had this heart of darkness called Vietnam, where we could find out about ourselves, but how do you, Robert Stone, take a moral stand? How did you? Did you?

RS: I quit school and when I was seventeen, joined the navy, and did well in the navy. I had been brought up by a mentally disturbed woman; we lived in furnished rooms. I had very little competence or experience of a great many things. I mean I didn't have a father. I didn't know what father meant until I became one. The closest I could come was something like my concept of God.

So the navy was useful to me, and I didn't approach the Vietnamese situation with the hostility a lot of the journalists over there had. There was tremendous competitiveness between the junior officers and the reporters, it seemed to me, who were roughly contemporaries. They really just didn't like each other. They were guys who'd gone to some of the same schools and they were just different breeds of cat.

God knows, if I get started on Vietnam there'll be no stopping me.

HB: I like that about your work, that you can't stop about Vietnam, can't let it go.

RS: It's the informing event of my generation.

HB: And mine.

RS: Right. The difference between people your age and people mine -- ten years -- is that I remember the second World War, I remember the end of the war and Roosevelt's death. Talk about a right side and a wrong side.

I realize now that the world we were bringing down in the middle sixties was the high point of American history from the point of view of wealth and influence. We were a blessed generation and it led us to demand more perfection. We were not going to tolerate segregation. The world was perfectible .

Some of the people who were fighting against the Vietnam War were doing what people a little older were doing in Vietnam, namely trying to continue the perfecting of the world that they'd seen happen in the second World War. The attitude that Graham Greene parodies, because he doesn't understand it, in "The Quiet American" is that of good intentions gone awry. A great many of the people behind the war were not wicked; their intentions were good.

But I was against the war. There wasn't any question about that. You have only to read "Dog Soldiers "to see that.

HB: "Dog Soldiers " alone doesn't tell me that. It leaves you right on the stoned cusp.

RS: For something like that there is a cusp. The last time I was in Vietnam was during Tet, 1996. As I was leaving Hanoi airport, getting on a plane to Cambodia, I was going to Pnom Pen. The customs guy stamping my passport, said, "It's Tet. I should get a present for my father. Talasker, now that's a good single malt. I think you should buy me a bottle of Talasker."

Thinking of Squad 310, the squad that tried to take the American Embassy in the south during Tet, 1968, I said, "No, I'm not buying you a bottle of Talasker." He said, "Well then you're going to miss your plane and there's not another one until Thursday." I told him, "You have to let me on. I'm a guide with that group," which happened to be a Yale group. And he realized he had to let me on. But he took my ticket and my passport, this customs official of the People's Republic of Vietnam, and, out of this huge roll of dollars, bought himself a bottle of Talasker.

HB: At least he knew good Scotch.

RS: At least he knew good Scotch, but think of it, this is what they fought the war for, this is why those guys crawled through tunnels and jungle under B-52s and gunships, so this guy could stand there shaking down tourists.

And when I went through Saigon, were there still sweatshops where children sewed all night to make raw silk dresses for tourists? You bet there were. It was just as corrupt, just as wide open. The whole war, on both sides was fought for nothing. The bitterness of it is staggering. It's no wonder all their war writers are in jail. After all that suffering, that incredible suffering, and millions and millions of casualties, a bunch of corrupt officials taking payoffs from sweatshops and tourists. That's what the winning side got, that's what victory brought the Vietnamese.

HB: Nevertheless, though I can barely put why into words any more, and most of my reasons, even the ones I've revised over the years, are wrong, I still utterly oppose American involvement in Vietnam.

RS: So do I. None of this justifies American involvement. It was really us insisting we had the answer and we were going to impose it on the Vietnamese.

HB: In "Dog Soldiers," you have Danskin analyzing the anti-War movement: "You're an American college kid -- that means you get anything you want. You get the best of everything that's in -- think it up, you got it. So revolution is in -- boots and cartridge belts and Chinese shit. All the rich suburban kids -- their parents never bought them cap pistols, now they want to kick ass. Revolution-- they gotta have that too.

"The richest fuckin' people in the richest country in the world -- you gonna tell them some little guy in a hole in South America can have something they can't? Like shit, man. If the little guy in the hole can be a revolutionary, they can be revolutionaries too."

That's a fascinating take. You see a continuity between soldiers there and the anti-War movement here. What was the biggest possible thrill? Beyond drugs and rock and roll? War. So we wanted our own. Only we were going to call it revolution.

RS: Our gang split up into political and nonpoliticals. When I was hanging with Kesey, some of my closest friends were extremely left-wing -- Vic, for instance, the guy to whom "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest "is dedicated. I myself never became a political activist on anything like that level. I certainly never became a Maoist but dear close friends of mine did go to the very far left. It never really interfered with our friendship. Well, it interfered; we had some arguments.

HB: They accused you of refusing to go the whole route, of refusing to follow out the implications of your own position. And you had the courage to refuse to follow out the implications of your own position.

RS: I just refused to go that much farther. I took part in demonstrations. I was against the War. These people remained friends. But I wasn't one of them. I was not a comrade.

HB: You've been very critical of Graham Greene. Is your real disagreement with him theological? Because you, too, are a profoundly Catholic writer, though, in Greene, doctrine is more conspicuous than in your work.

RS: My reference point is essentially Catholic, though my Catholicism is pretty heretical. It's a kind of extreme Jansenism. You know, in the perfect Jansenism there is no God. You have to do all the things you have to do, observe all the rules and so forth, but there isn't any God; you do it because you have to do it.

HB: There is plenty of God in your books. Your characters might wish there weren't. Your God just happens to be a terrorist.

RS: Kabbalah coincides so closely with everything I've always felt and thought that I find it really staggering. And Kabbalah comes very close to finding an evil side to God in the quality of *din*, and the invocation of the left side.

HB: *Din * being harsh judgment, the destructive side of the divine.

RS: Almost evil, suggesting evil. I find the metaphors of Kabbalah tremendously strong. In a way, all systems all are the same. Truth is the same, religious insights are the same. But I think that system is special. The idea of the unavailable god who leaves us only certain traces, certain characteristics -- that's the world my characters live in, where they detect traces of the ineffable.

HB: The title story of your new collection, "Bear and His Daughter," is a story about a temple in the woods, and a sacrifice that takes place there. It's very informed by Catholicism, maybe by a pagan root of Catholicism, real old time religion.

RS: That's true. In "Bear and His Daughter," a number of very primal things come together. Eliot has Sweeney say, "birth, copulation, and death." As I got further into the story, I began to realize what I was invoking, and that it was very strong and basic.

HB: When do you choose to write a short story as opposed to a novel?

RS: I've written very few short stories. I'm kind of in awe of the short story. One of the reasons I find novels easier or more congenial is that you can digress, you can foreshadow, you can play all kinds of games, whereas a short story is like a pitch in baseball. It's a single motion, a single process. If everything goes right, it leaves the pitcher's hands and ends up in the catcher's mitt. It's one long thrusting beautiful motion. There's nothing like a good short story.

And I'm very hard to please because, unfortunately, I'm also lazy in addition to being a perfectionist.

HB: Rough combination.

RS: A bad combination for a writer. I've said before that for a kid who never did his homework, I picked the wrong business.

I would like to do more stories. I would also expect to do novels that have less plot, less complication. I really learned a lot from Conrad about structuring novels, and also from the American modernists -- Hemingway, Dos Passos, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. But reading Conrad taught me how novels were made. And I think I've done my last Conradian novel. When I finish the one I'm working on, I want to work closer to the short story.

I'm not going to stop being a storyteller, because story is important. The pleasure principle? The story as entertainment? It's all valid. But I want to work closer to poetry, closer to the short story, even in my novels. I expect them to be shorter, less complex in terms of plotting, perhaps more complex in terms of language. In the time given to me, I want to try to do a few things differently. Maybe I'll try writing more poetry. Maybe I'll just try to get more poetry into my work.

HB: You write big novels that are traditional and are meant to have a kind of impact. Do you think novels can continue to matter to people in this culture in the way that they did?

RS: I don't think they do, as a matter of fact. We don't live in a culture that affords the kind of respect to novelists that twentieth century culture did in the past. We don't have Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, or Hemingway.

HB: Or the Norman Mailer of twenty years ago.

RS: The Norman Mailer of twenty years ago set out to replace Hemingway. He set out, as he said, to hit the longest ball in American letters. He was buying into that. But things didn't turn out that way. The culture, for whatever reason, does not afford to novelists the kind of attention that it did.

I don't think it's that those great giants of the past were that much better than us. I think it's what educated readers want. In a way they want to dispense with the process of fictioneering.

HB: Does that mean they want to dispense with imagination?

RS: I wonder. I think they think they do. Most great nonfiction is either fiction or so close to fiction, having undergone the transmutation into language, that there's really little difference. But I think people see themselves as not having time for people that somebody made up; they want the real thing, and they think they're going to get it in memoirs or reportage.

Whether the novel will make a comeback, I don't know. Fiction will never go away. It may take different forms. The novel will continue even if under the guise of nonfiction.

HB: Nonfiction writers have appropriated the techniques of fiction writers.

RS: Moreover, they are offering people the best of all possible worlds. They're offering the satisfactions and frisson of fiction with the authority of information.

HB: So readers feel they are getting something bankable for their money, some knowledge of the world, not somebody's creative urge being satisfied.

RS: That's a fallacy, really, but it is how people react. What people fail to realize is they're getting the same creative urge, they're getting somebody's take on the world, somebody's poetic impulse, whether they know it or not.

What is there to write about except what happens? Narrative is narrative, and we can't live without it. We've got to know our own history, even if we have to invent it. We've got to know who we are and where we came from, where we're going. Moreover, we want to mean something, we have to mean something.

HB: You're saying it doesn't matter whether they market it as fiction or nonfiction, whether it's called the novel or something else. Not to worry.

RS: I have to worry because I'm making my living as a novelist but, in fact, in the long run, not to worry. It's got to be there. People are going to need stories, whatever they call it.


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