In a time when we are more isolated and removed from other human beings than ever, Edie Meidav’s writing offers us the rare opportunity for intimacy and closeness. In her recently published novel, Another Love Discourse (326 pages; Terra Nova/MIT Press), Meidav explores motherhood, old romances, and new love in a lyrical and adaptable form. The influence of experimental writer Roland Barthes serves as guide and inspiration for what Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Margot Douaihy and others describe as Meidav’s boldest work yet.
Along with being the author of the novels Lola, California (FSG/Picador), Crawl Space (FSG), and the story collection Kingdom of the Young (Sarabande), Meidav is a senior editor at the literary journal Conjunctions and currently teaches in the UMass Amherst MFA Program. Her many accolades include the Bard Fiction Prize and the Kafka Prize for Best Novel.
She recently spoke to Zyzzyva about Another Love Discourse via email. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
ZYZZYVA: You make some interesting stylistic choices in Another Love Discourse, such as having sections right-aligned as opposed to standard left alignment. What inspired this choice? Is there some kind of symbolism involved?
EDIE MEIDAV: May I answer with a question? When we read, don’t we all wish to be jolted awake? Another Love Discourse has another book as both inspiration and ur-text, A Lover’s Discourse, which has that particular demiurge. Consider what Barthes says in it:
The incident is trivial (it is always trivial) but it will attract to it whatever language I possess. I immediately transform it into an important event, devised by something which resembles fate.
While this may be a note about his memory and method, in the rest of the book you find moments of such heartbreak, told with an absolute, breathless, and vulnerable intimacy. He reaches out to his imagined reader in such a direct way, you become his confidante, hearing him whisper all that he becomes in relation to love. So to return to considering what he says about the trivial incident, it does seem that most of what we do in our lives is stay on some constant treasure hunt for particular burred details which will unhinge our innermost hearts. Once we find these details—let’s say, a family gathering, a walk in nature, a moment in between, a movie, painting, photo, spot of text—we get to trace a way back to our inner labyrinth. As if, since birth, we have been sensual magpies, gathering images into some kind of inchoate image system. For some it may be a cast of light, a memory of someone’s color or shirt or angle, a detail of dialogue when you overhear a parent thinking out loud. Anything that pierces us brings us home to that innermost self, related partly what Roland calls the punctum in photography. And so to get back to your question: I was seeking to have the text reflect something of this sensual magpie quest we all have. To keep the reader awake, yes, to allow the reader the possibility of not necessarily reading the book sequentially—think of how Alice Munro says she writes and reads from the middle of stories and works outward—but also to make the text itself act as something trivial, breathless, important.
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As all of us see more clearly in retrospect, the incidents to be found those first days of the pandemic loomed large, hot, alive, both trivial and apocalyptic. Many of us who trade in words questioned: what is the job of a reader and writer in the time of apocalypse? Probably the same as our job at any other moment. Most writers aim to piece together symbols which might help others down some chute into catharsis, understanding, embrace of some distinctive world, heightened awareness, a greater latitude when faced with the inexorable constriction of life. I love, for instance, the story that Faulkner began a whole novel just from imagining a girl scratching the back of her ankle with a foot, leaning on a fence. That image, his inspiration, then becomes one of those significant details that pierces us: we get to connect with an artist who is experiencing some kind of bare humanity and so get to expand something of our own beautiful frail, powerful subjectivity.
And so in the case of this book, in those early days of the pandemic, hoping to survive, I felt we were at that historical and aesthetic point so long past the modernists where we nonetheless still needed some of their belief in new forms. What the modernists brought in the twentieth century spoke to their times: radical regeneration, a slash through canvas, disruption of sentence, as if our cave paintings might startle us outward in new directions, leaving us more awake. Consider the 1950s form of the nouvel roman: so much of this new treatment of subjects and objects signified the need for revolution in consciousness. Even as, right now, we are living in a time of revolution.
Writing this book signified my hope that there might be a way to survive our strange moment. A disrupted era asks for cross-pollination, hybridity, a goodbye to any illusion about the monolithic story, and yet this book wished to be kind to the reader by offering ease, space on the page, variation, the possibility of finding your own way through it.
And maybe since our brains are designed to pay attention to the new, and because I didn’t want the book to be inscrutable, I also hoped the unusual setting of the prose might offer something like a visual admission of vulnerability, an icon of imperfection, leaving the whole thing that much closer to the reader’s own heart.
Z: Much of the prose and verses in this lyrical book use the second-person perspective, compelling the reader to actively participate in the novel. Was this a deliberate decision you made as you were writing or was it more intuitive?
EM: Have you (not) found that you is the most seductive word in almost any language? Perhaps this is only true in a more guilt-prone and less shame-based culture, as is true in the States where our advertisers blast us with you—look how often it appears! That said, I have often found myself preaching to students that the risk of using a particular second-person address, as a stand-in for I, is that even if there is no narcissism in the narrative voice, the reader might feel thrust far away, as if finding the writer is speaking as if me but we have nothing in common. And because of that allergy, for some years, I did not love the promiscuous intimacy achieved by some 1980s writers who spoke of coke-fueled nights and addressed me/the reader. Others—say, Junot Diaz—used that second-person substitute for the I. I’ve also found some Russian writers use you in an interesting way, as if a fourth wall is being broken and we get to hear the character musing to us in a way that is a correlate to metafiction while being quite intimate. And then, of course, there’s the address to the reader from the time of George Eliot and earlier, or the epistolary you in which readers feel they have come across a love letter, with all the attendant sense of voyeurism.
And so, yes, with this book, I craved intimacy with the reader. I wanted you to feel pulled into a world where you might find yourself complicit, questioning your own choices in love, attachment, mourning, life.
Point-of-view is the most political choice you can make in writing, and I love the pronoun play someone like Julie Otsuka does in her novel from the collective viewpoint of Japanese brides, The Buddha in the Attic. What a triumph in her collective first, something you can only do if there is some kind of singular code, as in Faulkner, Morrison, the late Veasna So, so many others. What Otsuka’s Buddha does to the reader’s consciousness becomes a really wonderful narrative arc: a forward-moving narrative involving aspiration, redemption, and doom without a singular protagonist. When an author plays with pronouns, as Otsuka does, as Galgut does in The Promise, you cannot stay in your comfortable armchair far from the text.
Z: I noticed that rather than reporting from a single subjective perspective in the novel, you tend to honor both sides of a situation, through your discussion of motherhood and daughterhood, the speaker’s perspective and X’s perspective in moments of contention, et cetera. Should a writer endeavor to cover all the bases, as I feel you have done here?
EM: Thank you for the deep reading! Again to answer in a kind of Mobius-strip manner: have we not all met those in life who lead with their opinions, constitutionally prone to staking their feet deep into the sand, no matter the winds that batter them? The Certains! They know their position, find their views fail-safe, and feel entitled to the acuity of their perspective which they generously share. Oddly, I have often sought out some of these people as friends: their clarity can be so refreshing, a gift to others. That said, I must have some kind of Stockholm Syndrome in my perspective which means that I more often know others’ perspectives before I know my own. Nowhere did this become more apparent than when I left the left coast for the east and found myself surrounded with people quite attached to opinion, sallying forth into any conversation with the opinion itself a kind of spear: above all the other surprises, this one startled the most.
Growing up in Berkeley, having read Be Here Now in third grade and thinking that I should follow its self-dissolving dictates, having known this and that trauma, all winds around me wafted toward a particular detachment from any idea of the self as so real that it should attached – or entitled—to singular opinion. To say this in a more sociopolitical way: hyper-clarity seemed linked with patriarchy and oppression and by dint of constitution or faith, for me at least, fluidity became the kindest response. That said, of course those around me had righteous ideas about consumption, speech, behavior. Of course, nothing is ever completely untroubled; some have even called empathy a form of appropriation or colonization. (Consider all those brain studies which show fiction as being the very drug to wake the mirror neurons, the brain’s seat of empathy!)
For whatever it is worth, I have always loved the model of the mosquito’s eye, which contains the macrocosm in mosaic: my goal is always to see as clearly as I can, to be aware of the veils, to speak as truly as I can from whatever my perch in life has been, to see at the same time all the other perspectives.
Yet now to answer your question with my own form of evangelism: we have one life, and how limiting to live too married to any one line of ideation.
Z: For most of the people who you discuss in Another Love Discourse, you give them titles which shift and vary in context, never revealing their true names and rarely initials. And yet Roland (Barthes), whose theories you use to frame much of your exploration, is named. The contrast is striking, and I wonder if there is further meaning behind the naming and un-naming than can be gleaned from the novel?
EM: What a wonderful observation. In answer, Barthes serves so many functions for this novel. To use a clash of symbols befitting the overdetermined role he serves: he is both the book’s Maypole and its bootlaces, the magnetic pole, its valley and peak. And to speak to the piquant if unnamed ensemble in the rest of the book: I chose to use epithets for the other characters but for Uncle Rick—e.g., ‘middle daughter,’ ‘the executor,’ ‘her un-aging theater son’—both to protect the innocent, as this lyric novel has nouns that resemble some of those in my own biography, though verbs differ, and also wanted Roland alone to reign supreme, as you rightly surmise.
The novel pays homage to Barthes in ways little and big, and fittingly, he who forever felt a bit sidelined by the grand institutions of his time, whether academia or student revolt, gets to be the primary and overdetermined signifier.
Z: You have a large body of work, in various genres, and yet this book and its genre-bending nature seems especially striking to people. What do you think makes this particular book different from your others?
EM: Because you and I and everyone else are still living through this catastrophic mini-epoch of the sort humanity had pretended to forget we could know, I, too, felt myself to be dancing at survival’s very brink. Not to mention that my mother had just died, in January 2020; that I suddenly found myself responsible for some seven to ten beings during our first shutdown; and soon neurological Lyme, from just one tick bite, started freezing my face and shutting down my brain. I felt I had to write against the danger of both inner and outer shutdown: mortality came into play. So perhaps I was more vulnerable in this book; rather than aiming to create a well-crafted story, I put all of myself into the writing. Because the book was coming out with a smaller press than my other books, the publication assured before I had finished writing the thing, I felt I could, as a good friend said, offer something like an auteur’s cut, let my freak flag fly. And then exterior urgency came into play: the book was already listed, online, as being for sale before I had finished it, so perhaps I did not get to put on the finishing gloss that closes a work off from its readers. In writing against mortality and time, I found myself leaving certain aspects open, as in the demo track which is more beautiful than the finished song, the sketch which invites you in more allusively than the glossy finish of the exhibit’s painting. Perhaps that openness has let others find their place even more easily within the work.