by Beadel Debevoise, Fiction Editor: Let’s open a dictionary to the words Personal Days. We find absolutely nothing. Annoying lacuna. What follows is intended, if not to impose a definition, at least to propose a few remarks, simple hors d’oeuvres meant to assuage the impatience of the starving multitudes until the arrival of the main dish, which will be prepared by people more worthy than myself.
Do ya’ll remember the polemic that accompanied the invention of language? Mystification, puerile fantasy, degeneration of the race and decline of the State, treason against Nature, attack on affectivity, criminal neglect of inspiration; language was accused of everything (without, of course, using language) at that time.
And the creation of writing, and grammar— do ya’ll think that happened without a fight? The truth is that the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns is permanent. It began with Zinjanthropus, or “Bay Ridge Man,” 1,750,000 years ago, and will end only with humanity— or perhaps the mutants who succeed us will take up the cause. A Quarrel, by the way, very badly named. Those who are called Ancients are often the stuffy old descendents of those who in their own day were Moderns; and the latter, if they came back among us, would in many cases take sides with the innovators and renounce their all too faithful imitators.
Ed Park’s Personal Days only represents a new rising of the sap in this debate.*
Brian Berger: Linear, or mere narrative, as Beadel Debevoise calls it, is probably the cheapest of all literary affects, so I was excited to see Personal Days quite free from such constraints. Or, perhaps more precisely, I should say I was excited to see you inventing your own constraints: at least three of them, in fact, corresponding to the tri-partite structure of the novel, which embraces more than just a story, however skilled its telling.
Ed Park: About narrative constraints in Personal Days, I was going to say: Yes! But then I thought, What is freedom? I knew I wanted radically different textures for different effects—the abrupt changes between the three sections register as jolts. (The idea was to simulate, structurally, the sudden changes caused by corporate restructuring.) But I didn’t know that until I started writing, saw the shape the book was taking, got a good handle on the tone and then thought how best to challenge it, subvert it, balance it out. In a “pure” Oulipian project—and is there really such a thing?—the author might propose the constraint first, then write within its bounds. But for me the constraints developed organically. Is this freedom? Figuring out how to restrict yourself? For some reason I’m thinking of Nabokov’s anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, of the ape whose first drawing was of the bars of its cage. By the time I had finished most of Part I—told in short sections, like little memos, in the first person plural—I already knew that Part III had to go against that voice. The casual tone of the beginning—“On the surface, it’s relaxed”—needed to find its opposite.
Brian: As a satire, it seems Personal Days is subverting— or playing with— the expectations not only of your characters’ fictional bosses but the de facto bosses of a writer’s fiction as well, i.e. his or her potential readers. This is a quietly radical move when you could— and most others would— have just yucked it up, tracing their narrative arcs (with a little sex) until, AAAHHHH: blessed release. Cue the Dramatic Ending Machine and everyone goes home barefoot, expectations satisfied.
Ed: This point is very interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the element of surprise. We like to be surprised by art, no? Yet we also tend to read within the genres we like—mystery novels, romance stories, “literary” fiction. Certain developments and resolutions come to be expected. Much of my reading is done in this mode, but I also seek out things that I know will deploy derangements of language, adventurous forms—pushing-the-envelope stuff. (Of course, such books themselves constitute a genre.)
I wanted Personal Days to be very accessible yet also surprising, not like any other book out there—you could call this another constraint of sorts, another challenge (from myself, to myself). I don’t know if I quite see the parallel between the audience and the bosses, or maybe it’s just that, in a strange parallel process, at certain points I felt like the boss, the boss of bosses—the one sitting at the top who could see the havoc his decisions made. That is, any time the action needed a jolt, I fired a few more workers—instant drama, instant pathos.
Brian: One of the classic South Brooklyn pick-up lines is “Let’s talk about ethnicity.” Jesús Colón, Hubert Selby, Gilbert Sorrentino, Emmett Grogan and, in hip-hop, Hell Razah and Shabazz The Disciple— they all used it and so do I. Although you live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you are reading just over Atlantic Avenue from the northernmost bounds of historic South Brooklyn, so I must ask, were you conscious of the fact that Personal Days might be read as an example of the Korean-American novel, and could you speak briefly on your relationship, if any, with the Korean language?
Ed: “A career/a Korea,” as Pavement might have sung. I don’t know that many people “do not want to talk about” the ethnic angle in Personal Days—Lord knows that ethnicity is a great talking point for publishers and readers. The book isn’t explicitly “about” ethnicity, but I did want to invite the reader to think about how it factors into our social lives, our working relationships, our sense of identity. (Or how, sometimes, it really doesn’t.) When the reader learns, in Part I, that some of the characters (the narrating “we”) were or are people of color, it messes with the seamless assumption—i.e., everyone’s white—that has come before; and (mild spoiler) there is a second, even more pointed challenge as we head into the book’s final innings—a nod to a couple of Harry Mathews’s wonderful novels. It’s pretty clear that technology is a phantom of sorts, haunting the book’s lonely passages—but maybe race is, too.
The first (unpublished) novel I wrote took on some Korean and Korean American themes, as well as the broader question of identity, albeit in a labyrinthine, not to mention bizarre, manner (North Korea, heavy metal—don’t ask). My second (also unpublished) novel looked at ethnicity, though not Koreanness—save for the fact that a character introduced in the first twenty pages, then whisked away for the remaining 400 or so, was a Korean American novelist. I can’t help but be interested in Koreanness, mostly because I’m not sure what it means. The story of Personal Days doesn’t come out of my ethnicity any more than The Remains of the Day had anything to do with Ishiguro’s. Which is not to say some buried connections exist, for future discovery.
Ed Park reads tonight at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 106 Court St, in downtown Brooklyn. Anyone who’s hungry should eat Yemeni cuisine afterwards.
* How can sap rise in a debate? We shall leave this question aside, since it arises not from poetry but vegetal physiology.
1. Bartleby the Scrivener and Jarleth Prendergast
2. Samuel Pepys and Samuel Beckett
3. Leos Janacek and Karel Čapek
4. Harry Stephen Keeler and Harry Mathews
5. First Korean Church of Brooklyn, Gravesend, and Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building a Successful Personal Brand and Fighting to Keep It by David D’Allesandro
6. Thomas Bernhard and Bernadine Dohrn