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Cartilage and Skin: An Interview With Michael James Rizza

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Michael James Rizza’s debut novel Cartilage and Skin won the ninth annual Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. It’s a fascinating, fast-paced narrative that also offers its share of ambiguity, and I knew I wanted to interview him as soon as I put the book down. Here are my questions along with the author’s responses.

AK: How did you write the book? Did you outline first or write a substantial draft and allow a plot to come to you? How much writing did you have before you “saw” the plot of the entire book? Are there any twists of plot or turns of phrase that came up remarkably late in the process?

MJR: I think I did what a lot of writers do: they explore in short fiction some literary moves and ideas that they want to develop as a novel.  Thus, the similarities between some of my short stories and the novel.  “Scavenger” has the same chiasmic structure, with a gesture being the pivot point.  “Anonymous” has the same idea that “normal” male behavior or desire contains the germ of violence.  I might have been reading too much Freud and Lacan at the time.  For Freud, adopting an objectifying attitude is part of ordinary development; actually, “attitude” is not the right word, because we are talking about the very constitution of the self.  In an unpublished story called “The Secret Scene” I wanted to defamiliarize the expected coming-of-age story and also create a tension between form and content. 

Also, I think I was fortunate to have read Camus and Martin Luther at the same time.  Before his discovery of the doctrine of faith alone, Luther was obsessed with guilt.  His every breath seemed to be an indictment against him.  Meanwhile, in The Stranger, the main character is a murderer who fails to explain his actions or lack of emotion; and he is found guilty because of his lack of emotion.  I wanted to flip The Stranger.  What if I had a narrator who feels guilt and self-loathing even though there is no real good evidence that he did anything wrong.  Would we indict him because of his excessive feeling?  He must be guilty because he feels guilty.   So I did a lot of thinking and writing exercises before I started.  I saw the themes and structure; I saw the ending first.  Then I filled it all in.  The narrator’s voice may sound very graceful and smooth, but I gave myself some strange rules to create it.  For example, I made him think very physically and spatially about his body and brain, so we get lines like “smeared against the back wall of my mind.”  And I wanted his voice to sound like we are watching a performance and waiting for it to crack; he is walking a tightrope and we are waiting for him to fall.  I think seeing the whole book before I started let me pay a lot of attention to the voice, to create breathless moments when he might slip.  Of course, there is this, too: “You can always count on a murderer for his fancy prose style.”            

AK: You’ve told me of how you cut out a substantial portion of the novel relatively late in the process? Was it cathartic to make such a large cut? Did it include a “eureka” moment, as in, now I’ve got the right length? Had you queried with the longer manuscript before you sent out this award-winning, revised version? 

MJR: A large part of the preliminary work was a bunch of false starts.  I kept thinking my narrator should be sixteen years old, so I wrote about two and half novels about a sixteen-year-old with the same pathology and hang-ups as my narrator.  There were a lot of the same themes, such as excessive guilt without cause, the connection between male desire and violence, and social awkwardness.  Then, in 1998, sometime around my last week of graduate school in Philadelphia, a classmate, Andrew McCann, pretty much slapped me in the face.  He seemed a bit exasperated by me and acted like it was his last chance to set me straight.  The slap was this comment: “Even Faulkner raped his characters with corncobs.”  That was a pivotal point.  It meant a lot of things, one of which was that I needed to bury my sixteen-year-old and make a new narrator who was, say, forty or fifty.  The problem with the first draft of Cartilage and Skin was that I kept trying to bring the sixteen-year-old back in.  I didn’t let him go.  The cathartic moment was finally cutting out all the flashbacks to his youth, roughly 180 pages.  I only queried the revised version.  I sent out a handful, less than ten queries, in two waves.  Several reputable presses gave me very kind rejections; I got a few form rejections; and then, for the second wave of submissions, I changed my mind before I even had a chance to be rejected or accepted, and asked about five publishers to no longer consider my submission.  I was working on a new novel (still am, in fact) and thought that Cartilage and Skin might work better as a second novel; I feared it might be too risqué.  Thus, I left it with only one press, Starcherone Books, pretty much by accident.  It was a contest, and I overlooked it, because it wasn’t in my email or Submittable account.  If Ted Pelton didn’t call me, I probably would have left the book buried in some folder on my computer for another ten years.   

Cartilage and Skin Cover

AK: You’ve made the employment of your protagonist (antagonist?) ambiguous.  We know he teaches and writes and has intellectual ideas, but we don’t know for sure if he is an adjunct, full-time but non-tenured, tenure-track, or tenured.  More generally, he seems to be someone who is employed on the extreme margins of society, when employed at all. 

MJR: My narrator is not an adjunct but a full-timer; yet he doesn’t seem to be tenured, and he might not even be on tenure track.  I imagine he’s on leave, supposedly to work on a book, but most likely because he did something wrong (we don’t know what) and they are giving him a timeout.  Yes, he is in a precarious situation in regard to his work.  We know he’s in a new apartment, but he withholds the backstory about why he is off from work and why he moved. 

By the way, you were an enormous influence on the novel.  When I was first planning the novel, I wanted some type of crime to be hovering over my narrator’s head; I wanted him to be accused and to seem guilty.  I thought of murder and other things, but then I remembered something that you said: Some of the male prostitutes in Philly look underage; they possibly dress that way on purpose or are actually underage.  You didn’t know.  So you gave me that, as well as the idea of retaining the ambiguity about “the boy,” not just the ambiguity of his age but also at times he seems like a regular neighborhood kid, a vagrant, or a prostitute.  I think that this is the first time I told you that you gave my book its hovering crime.

AK: There were prostitutes around 16th and Pine when I lived there in the 1990s. That is probably what I was talking about. I remember a woman from a PhD program talking about the “Johns” driving around the block in their cars and saying about them, “They look like your father,” as in, they look like regular older suburban dads. Anyway, when did you write the book? Was it over months or years?

MJR: I started Cartilage and Skin in 1998.  When I went to South Carolina in 2004, I had a complete draft, which was roughly 180 pages longer than the current 324 pages.  As I worked on my PhD, I didn’t really think about my book.  Sometimes during that period, I would open to random pages and tinker with the language.  In 2006, I added a sentence about Horatio Alger; in 2009, I added a sentence about “rhizomatically-inclined sophists.” That was the last sentence I added.  In the spring and summer 2010, after I finished my dissertation, I cut out the 180 pages (which, as I mentioned, dealt with his youth) and moved some things around.  Then a year or so later, I sent it out and Starcherone accepted it.  

AK: I like the ambiguous ending of Cartilage and Skin, how it opens up various ways of “seeing” the protagonist’s (or anti-hero’s) involvement in the world of porn and sexual predators. Did this come to you early in the writing process, or was the ambiguity in the ending arrived at relatively late in the manuscript’s life?

MJR: One way of “seeing” it is that he has no involvement at all, that he is just the most hapless guy around.  We can take his claims at face value, that he is truthful and sincere.  Some people may want to “see” him that way.  In action, if not thought, he may be too pure and chaste to be normal. Other readers may distrust every word he says.  The ambiguity was there from the start.  I tried to write it in very first sentence of the novel: “I was coming down the hall behind him, when my landlord paused before a door and rapped two times, hard, with the butt of his palm.”  The pronoun error, putting the “him” before “landlord,” suggests there is something suspicious is this retrospective story. The “him” is readily available to the narrator’s mind, because he knows who he is talking about; meanwhile “landlord” is for the reader, a clarification.  Also, I wanted there to be a tension between the structure and the content of the novel.  The chiasmic structure is pretty closed, and every one of Chekhov’s guns (the milkcrate, the window, the alley, the hammer, the footprints, etc.) goes off.  Yet, despite the structural neatness and closure, there are many ways to “see” and very much a sense of lack of neatness and closure.  I was trying to figure out a way to blend Modern and Postmodern aesthetics, which is probably why I won an award for innovative fiction.    

AK: Could you explain what you mean by “every one of Chekhov’s guns. . . goes off”?

MJR: It refers to narrative harmony and reader expectation.  Chekhov tells us that if a writer has a rifle hanging on the wall in act one, then by act three or four, it must go off.  Yet, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a gun; it can be a milkcrate, a window, an alley, a hammer, or a set of footprints.

AK: Are you concerned that your main character’s tenuous teaching status, or his status as an “intellectual,” will have a negative impact on how universities treat contingent faculty and how society treats “intellectuals” in general? Or will his marginal employment have a negative impact on how the marginally employed (millions of people in contemporary America) are viewed?

MJR: I’m not concerned at all.  My narrator is a smart guy who suggests that he has no soul, that he is just a body, or cartilage and skin.  In his hands, this is a disturbing idea, yet there are plenty of respectable people who hold the same view and remain quite undisturbed.  They get a lot of intellectual mileage out of the idea, and the idea is very good at feeding egos and puffing people up.  Yet my narrator is not one to wave his hand haughtily at the mass of people who do believe in a soul.  Also, he is not a public intellectual; he’s barely a private one.  He doesn’t speak for anyone; he’s not a representative person.  He is more of an aberration, like Rodion Raskolnikov.  Whatever impact he may have on contingent faculty, intellectuals, or the poor will be purely incidental and lack any lasting importance.  His goal is to be blotted from the annals of humanity.  

AK:  He seems to have some intellectual pretensions or feelings of intellectual “grandeur”; were you intent on showing how the life of the mind can lead to “real world” failures?

MJR: Part of the humor of my narrator’s intellectualism (or at least why I think it is funny, if not merely ironic) is that he is an intellectual, trapped in his mind, unable to function smoothly in the world; however, his intellectualism is based on the philosophy of the body, which is a famous turn of thought in the nineteenth century, in which the body becomes foundational to our thinking, probably beginning with Schopenhauer and moving through Marx and Nietzsche. His indefinite quest in the novel is to live in his body.  So it is more than just the ordinary social awkwardness of a smart person. 

AK: Are you open to quasi-Marxist readings of your text, ones which emphasize, or criticize based upon, in general, the protagonist’s material conditions–his pay, his presumed working conditions, perhaps his lack of access to normal dating routines such as owning an automobile, paying for car insurance, spending money in restaurants, etc.? Are we in an overtly commodified world of late capitalism or is that insignificant?

MJR: I think the novel lends itself to various theoretical approaches, particularly Marxist.  Perhaps the narrator’s frustration results from his resistance to giving into desire, that endless wanting, striving, and achieving that drives the market place and accounts for much of what we consider progress.  He regards desire as some type of imperialism, the expansion of the self, usually at the expense of others.  Of course, desire doesn’t need to be considered in these terms at all, but they are the terms that Marxists use to critique the Enlightenment project and humanist subjectivity.  The narrator puts himself in a lose/lose situation: in order to be normal he needs to embrace his own self-centered, imperialist expansion; or else he can be a social misfit.  Vanessa Somerset, who is the focus of the latter half of the novel (perhaps the novel’s hero and moral center), seems to offer him a way out of this lose/lose situation. 

Of course, all the overt effects of his economic status lend some tension to my narrator’s situation.  After all, he relies on his returned security deposit on his apartment and waits eagerly for a Christmas card from his mom, just for the money inside.  He buys an economy pack of underwear, even though he has to carry it around, which is both funny and sad.  He borrows money from a kind colleague and invents schemes not to pay it back.  Yet the reach of capitalism can be more subtle and insidious.  In the beginning of the book, the narrator leaves an art gallery (of all places) and thinks this: “As I hurried forward, I became aware of the buildings looming up around me, of every bit of earth covered up with concrete and tar, and of the air saturated less with natural elements than with waves and signals and blathering voices too numerous to fathom.  It all seemed significant and portentous, as though the grimy fingerprints  of man could not only be seen on everything but also were intimately and mysteriously connected to the secrete places of my own heart.  I wasn’t quite certain what this meant for me or what I actually needed to do” 

AK: What would a feminist reading of your novel look like? Do you see that possibility in your creative work?

MJR: The chapter are given titles such as “Mothers and Whores,” “Boys and Men,” “Goats and Monkeys.”  So questions about gender are at the heart of the novel.  I imagine there can be more than one feminist reading of the book.  In regard to the masculine imagination, Adrienne Rich talks about women being a terror or a dream, as though women tend to be debased or idealized; either way, they are drained of their subjectivity and humanity.  Something of that imagination runs through the novel, and the sad part is that it is normal, everyday kind of stuff, just the regular sort of objectification that we are all used to and hardly notice.    

AK: One of my favorite scenes is the one where he winds up in the bar and becomes a “mingler,” someone who might even have a chance of “getting the girl.” What were your goals for that scene, aside from providing some laughs, and what are your favorite scenes in your novel?

MJR: I’m glad you laughed.  In your previous question about a feminist reading, I mentioned the masculine imagination.  That is what the bar scene is about.  The narrator happens to find himself allied with a young man named Stephen who is trying to pick up women.  What makes the scene funny is that it is not just seduction, some guy picking up some girl in a bar, but meta-seduction and male bonding, because Stephen explains all his moves to the narrator.  Meanwhile, the narrator tries to resist all the explanation and male bonding, and he offers his own meta-commentary in return, such as “Why have sex with her at all?”  He cannot decide whether he admires or hates Stephen.  Stephen is an ordinary guy, making simple moves in a bar, but the narrator sees Stephen’s desire as violent and grotesque.  Stephen is funny, happy, cherubic, and relentlessly open about his intentions, yet he is a wrecking ball, willing to use his blind date, the narrator, the waiter, and whatever else to “get the girl.” 

That is one of my favorite scenes, too.  But I particularly like the interrogation scene when the narrator is shown random pictures of some guy straddling a discarded refrigerator.  Then he is asked to explain, which is purely absurd and about as close as I get to Kafka in the novel.  I initially imagined the picture to be a degraded version of the narrator’s hero: the joy-riding guy on the motorcycle, who supposedly represents an ideal form of masculinity.  But I left all that heavy-handed stuff aside, unexplained, and kept the absurdity intact.  Also, I like most scenes with Vanessa Somerset; I wanted to reveal this woman slowly and gradually, so she strikes us as vulnerable and flawed but truly kind and strong. I wanted her to radiate her humanity in a way that seems to nourish and possibly revive my narrator’s crippled self-perception. My narrator says that he treats his own humanity as just “a tangle of flayed skin that he used to cloak himself whenever he encountered another person.”                     

AK: As a reader, I assumed he was relatively poor, living in an apartment, not owning a home, etc. Is the ambiguity surrounding the economic terms of his employment important to the other themes of the novel?

MJR: In order to have a well-rounded, believable character, then you need to consider employment and money.  Few adults go through their day without a continual awareness of their purse.  The simple gesture of locking your car door suggests property rights and ownership.  Economics shapes our habits and our consciousness, whether we are aware of it or not.  Moreover, my narrator wants to be on the “playing field of men,” as he says, because he has been sitting on the sidelines.  In our culture, a large part of what it means to be a man is defined in economic terms.  Not to be independent and self-sufficient, let alone a provider, is to be less of a man.  So, the economic theme is connected to the theme of masculinity, but also it is connected to desire, how people want and achieve but ultimately remain unsatisfied, so they want and achieve again and again, in small ways all day long but also in large ways, or, as my narrator says, “from teacups to towers.”    

About the author: Michael James Rizza has an MA in creative writing from Temple University in Philadelphia and a PhD in American Literature from the University of South Carolina. He has published academic articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Harold Frederic, and Adrienne Rich. His novel Cartilage and Skin was just published by Starcherone Books in November 2013. His short fiction has recently appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Switchback, and Curbside Splendor. He has won various awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His current projects are a book about the theories of Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault (which is currently in peer review with an academic press) and a novel tentatively titled Domestic Men’s Fiction. He teaches at Kean University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Robin and their son Wilder, who was named after a character in DeLillo’s White Noise.

 

Alex Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books) was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea and consequently won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of an adjunct instructor, and reviews and interviews can be found online and in print in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Academe, and elsewhere. His second novel, Auggie's Revenge (Beating Windward Press), and a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day (Hard Ball Press) were published in 2016. Kudera's other publications include the e-singles Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press), The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity (Gone Dog Press), and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks). When he's not reading or writing, he frets, fails, walks, works, and helps raise a child.

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