“A Writer Should Never Get Over How Embarrassing This Is”: A Conversation With Adam Ehrlich Sachs

Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s debut novel, Inherited Disorders, makes its method visible to you as you read: you watch the book, feel it turning itself inside out in order to say something worth it. Its ...

Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s debut novel, Inherited Disorders, makes its method visible to you as you read: you watch the book, feel it turning itself inside out in order to say something worth it. Its preoccupations—its stumbling blocks, but also its most beloved themes—are literally announced in the titles of the 117 tableaux that make up the novel: “Exploitation,” “Progress,” “Obligation,” “Commentary,” “Explanation,” “Control,” “Reproduction,” “Resemblance,” “The Tallinn Holocaust Memorial Museum,” “Talent.” Sachs calls his tableaux “problems,” and almost all of them do have the air of logical teasers. But what’s beautiful about his book is the way that he chooses over and over, and over, to retain his problems as problems. Everything keeps on turning. In Inherited Disorders, the possibility that you are, in fact, a brain in a vat is not something to be solved and assuredly moved on from, but seriously reveled in. In conversation, Sachs will insist that this is obviously a clear sign of his own inability to really get anywhere. But I don’t know. That resistance to solutions—it embodies a kind of secret hope that there’s a way out of millennia of endless and endlessly passed-on obsessiveness, and it’s through obsessiveness.



Joshua C. A. Cohen (JC): I know he’s important to you, so let’s start with him—there’s this line in Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser where the narrator thinks to himself that friendships are really only ever possible when they’re based on mutual backgrounds. This idea surfaces in at least one of the stories in your novel—“Obligation,” where a famous mountaineer’s son and a famous sea kayaker’s son are set up by a mutual friend who thinks, given their shared filial situations, they’ll have “a lot to talk about.” What do you think? Can we only really bond with people who come from the same, or nearly the same, place as us?


Adam Ehrlich Sachs (AES):
I think that story came out of more than one conversation with one or another Jewish friend in a bar about our fathers—not an uncommon event in my life. When I was writing stories I was aware that, on one level, I was trying to be very particular. I was always trying to work with the relationship I knew best in my own mind. But I also thought that I was maybe writing about a kind of Jewish father-son relationship more generally—that these neuroses might also have more than a purely local flavor. But no, I never dreamed that I could aim for this kind of narrow feeling and yet somehow it would come out feeling very universal. I just don’t think that’s true. I mean, in the initial reactions to the book, the people I’m hearing from are mainly those same Jewish guys, the kind I have those conversations with in the bar. So, my stuff doesn’t seem to have been transmuted into some universal register. I think it started particular and Jewish and ended particular and Jewish.


JC: Is any kind of universality possible in writing?


AES: Well, the book is heavily derivative of and playing with and parodying the tradition of father-son literature. So, to the extent that everybody knows about Oedipal complexes and Kafka, maybe the themes are universal. Killing your father and sleeping with your mother: everybody gets that. But the treatment of the themes may seem simply idiosyncratically neurotic—the sculptures of anxiety might be less universal, or, I don’t know, require a certain kind of mental disorder to find funny.


JC: A lot of the sons in the novel try to translate the particulars of their relationships with their fathers into “art of supposedly universal significance and ideas of supposedly universal application” (see “The Furniture Store Owner’s Son,” in which the furniture trade is “made to represent more or less the whole cosmos, the march of human history, and the form of the bourgeois novel”). What worries you about this—about turning something particular into something universal?


AES: You worry, for one thing, that it’s a kind of exploitation. You want your relationship to your father to be ineffable and personal and its own end—not material for a book. And your own literary career should not be feeding on the carcass of your dad: I feel like that’s a healthy rule of thumb.


JC: It feels like the novel is worried about interpretation, too. There are a few stories where things, sometimes people, are literally interpreted or explained to death. What’s the worry about interpretation?


AES: I switched sides from academia to literature. And you know, there’s this sort of struggle between writers who create little bubbles of meaning and academics who come in afterward and puncture them and safely put everything back in its context. To devote three years to something that will just immediately be punctured, if it’s not ignored—I don’t know. Fiction should be punctured and explained, and it can be, and will be, and it’s not like academics are wrong to do it, to puncture it; it’s not like they get the books wrong. But I feel like the delusions required to spend time doing this—writing fiction—mean you have to believe you’re doing something that can’t immediately be categorized or explained. I think I was trying to anticipate what could be done to fiction before anyone else could come and do it to it. Maybe it’s just a smart aleck thing. (There’s a great line in Edward St. Aubyn, something like: “Why do I think intelligence consists of proving that I can have an argument all on my own?”) But more than that, maybe it’s also just an anger with piousness and solemnity, my resistance to explanation. I love Kafka, but there are times when you feel like he’s trying to create meaning without at the same time acknowledging that he’s trying to create meaning—it’s annoying. Every time I find myself aiming for profundity I try to make fun of myself before anyone else can.


JC: A lot of the micro-chapters that make up the novel have the structure of a traditional—I won’t say, “Jewish”—joke. For example, the metaphor taken over-literally. Jokes, Freud thought, work a lot like dreams. Do you think of any of your mini-stories as dreams?


AES: I was just talking to my wife about whether I need to take LSD. I was watching this thing on Brian Wilson and reading a lot of interviews with him, and you know, he’s brain damaged from it. By the way, there’s something incredibly mysterious about Brian Wilson—he’s crazy and sad and brilliant and miraculous to ponder. Anyway, he says that LSD brought out the best creativity in him and ruined his life. But no, I don’t think there’s anything dream-like or associative about my writing. I think all of these things are reason pushed further and further with more bursts of reason and made into weird little contorted shapes. Which I think I sort of get from Bernhard. I hate non sequitur in fiction. Anything random I don’t like. I like logically compelled things—but logic to the point of madness, hyper-logic. So no need for LSD, I think.


JC: What’s the place of academic thought and writing in your fiction? Does it help? Hurt?


AES: I do read philosophy and go on philosophy blogs and I like being a bystander to the philosophical realm, even though it seems completely absurd to me that anybody could do that for a living. It’s weird, my relationship to practicing analytic philosophers, because I do feel the attraction to the things that they ponder all day—they’re sort of the same things I ponder all day. But what amazes me is that they think they’ll actually work something out. Part of the reason I left academia is that I realized I couldn’t sustain the delusion that you could make a positive contribution, that you could positively say something, as opposed to purely only ever criticizing and seeing the flaws in everything. Showing how every argument is doomed to collapse, or merely just restating something that’s already been said—those are things I felt capable of doing, but I couldn’t stomach doing them. I can’t make the academic move that’s been made a thousand times before. I think all of the moves in academia, in philosophy, have been played. There’s nothing more to contribute there. Philosophy’s been done for a long time, almost since it got started. I still like thinking about it, though. Just, in fiction I can take a Pyrrhonian “there’s no answer to these things, and I can’t even assert that there’s no answer” kind of approach and then play with the paradoxes instead of thinking that there’s an answer.


JC: But you can’t help but like philosophical problems. Take solipsism, which is clearly your favorite—


AES: You noticed—


JC: What does dramatizing philosophical problems do that solving them can’t do?


AES: I’m drawn to the questions without any faith in there being a solution, is another way of putting it. And I wish I could be like my father and be a pragmatist or be like one of Wittgenstein’s students and understand that you’re supposed to drop these questions and go be an engineer. My father, I’ve asked him: How do these things not trouble you? How does solipsism not bother you? And he somehow has the cast of mind to be smart enough to know about these things and consider them, but then also to see that there’s no worth, no use, in attempting to solve them. And then he can go off and do something else, do something productive, go help people. I agree with him that there’s nothing to do about them. But I don’t have the cast of mind where I can stop thinking about them. I don’t know what to do if you’re in academia. You have to somehow keep up the façade of actually doing something with these things—no offense. I just, I can’t even believe in a kind of Wittgensteinian dissolution. I think these things are going to haunt us, me, forever. So the best we can hope for is to play with them and make little jokes of them, try to turn them into entertainment. I think I just want to make myself—and maybe some other people who’re fixated on the same problems—laugh.


JC: There are moments where the narrator of Inherited Disorders refers to “scholarly consensus,” or speaks as a member of a scholarly “we.” He talks academically. Can fiction learn anything from academic writing?


AES: This definitely comes in part from an interest in Borges, a Borges fandom. It also comes in part, I think, from an embarrassment about fiction—the act of making up a story seems kind of shameful to me. And I think it did to Borges, too. So, you know, that’s why he takes solace in the idea that you could frame your story as a kind of discovery rather than as something invented (and he got this from Don Quixote, so he didn’t invent that either). You can assume that the book already exists and summarize it. It gives you an alibi: you’re not actually doing this shameful childish thing, sitting there telling a tale. I feel like a writer should never get over how embarrassing this is.

“You can be anxious about anxiety about anxiety—and get somewhere.”

Anyway, I don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed in academia longer. One thing, though, is that I wouldn’t have written this book—which I’m kind of happy with, -ish, at the moment—if I hadn’t ever been in it. Scholarship’s a resource. You can exploit it. People have lamented the absence of ideas in American fiction, and I hate The Magic Mountain as much as anyone, or more than most people, but I am into ideas. I think my interest in them is—Beckett says he has no interest in the content of ideas, but he likes the shape of them. I have no interest in dramatizing academic debates in a way that Mann—or Bellow in his bad moments—does, of just importing them and showing that you’ve read this stuff and, so, how smart you are. I just think some ideas have interesting shapes. They’re fun to play with. Not to learn anything from, but rather as little structures of argumentation. I don’t think it’s at all superior to look at relationships—what novels typically do. I don’t know. I think looking at ideas and making them your characters is an underused kind of strategy. So I exploit superficially scholarly stuff I’ve read—in a way that could never withstand academic scrutiny. I really only want to use things completely recklessly and irresponsibly, which is how things should be used for fiction, I think.

JC: Can one write one’s way out of obsessiveness obsessively?

I think—yes. It’s a lesson I got from Bernhard. When I started writing fiction my worry was that I was too skeptical to do it. To start on a fictional project you have to believe in something, in certain conventions. You can’t keep deconstructing all the parts that go into it. At a certain point you have to stop doing that and move forward—but Bernhard doesn’t. Everything is just constantly being broken down. The content of what he writes is always breaking down; the parts are there, but in pieces. He stands on the surface, and normally in fiction you build a house but Bernhard, he keeps digging under his feet and he makes these beautiful—who knows what they are—these beautiful piles of words. That was kind of revelatory for me. That skepticism applied to itself over and over can somehow create something positive. I think it’s the same for obsessiveness. In earlier versions of this novel I would try to temper that kind of neuroticism and bring in the other parts that I knew had to go into a book—and they just never felt alive. So when I gave full rein to it—when I turned the obsessiveness on itself, that’s when it started feeling a little better, a little more interesting. You can be anxious about anxiety about anxiety—and get somewhere. In fiction, though, not in academia, or maybe anywhere else in life.


Featured image: Rubik. Photograph by Hernán Piñera / Flickr