Vintage, 2003, ISBN 1400031834; 288 Pages, Paperback $12.00. [Browse/Purchase]
Laurence Daw interviews Jim Knipfel
As his long-time readers know, New York Press columnist Jim "Slackjaw" Knipfel suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable, irreversible, degenerative eye disease. He also has left temporal lobe brain damage from a severe blow to the head suffered in 1995, and some say he has a drinking problem as well. Jim has thus survived circumstances which would have finished a lesser person. In volumes one and two of his memoirs, Slackjaw and Quitting the Nairobi Trio, he has responded to his own dire straits with tremendous humour, warmth, and unique modes of expression. Volume three of his memoirs is even now being prepared for publication.
Jim Knipfel's latest book, however, is his first work of fiction. A novel called The Buzzing, it deals humorously with the elaborate conspiracy theories of a writer named Roscoe Baragon who is more of a detective than a journalist. He has plenty to work with, having been dropped to "the kook beat" from his former position as a story-writer of Pulitzer Prize winning calibre.
Homeless people are disappearing from hotels run by Toga-wearing "Seatopians." Corpses in the city morgue are radioactive. Earthquakes ravage the planet along an exact longitudinal parallel. A space station is crashing to earth filled with mutant life-forms.
Or: are they?
Knipfel writes in a classic postmodernist paranoia-driven style in which the storyteller is as important as the story itself. His novel is no Foucault's Pendulum, but his control of dialogue is flawless, and his deep knowledge of the oddest personae of a big city is undeniable.
A recent interview with the author and practicing journalist explores many of the novel's sources, themes, and intentions.
Laurence Daw: When you first cast Roscoe as a newspaper reporter, did you actually see him more as a detective figure? Would you say that the tradition of pulp fiction crime-writing influenced you in any way?
Jim Knipfel: Well, that's sort of a tricky one, because newspaper reporters are detectives, in a way. As a reporter, you're trying to gather information, you're trying to get people to talk, and in the end your goal is to put a coherent (or at least semi-coherent) story together. Pretty much everything a detective's trying to do, but with a steadier pay check and less gunplay. I made Roscoe a journalist because, well, I know the journalism business better than I know the detective business.
The only thing I knew for sure when I started toying with the idea of writing fiction was that I wanted to write a pulp novel. I've always loved the pulps the language, the twisted storylines. There was a damaged purity to them. People could get away with things in the pulps that they couldn't get away with anyplace else. The authors were free to let their strangest obsessions run wild. (Read three Dave Goodis novels in a row, say, and you'll start to notice that this man had some serious, serious problems dancing around in his head.)
A few other things were at play, too I loved the old Night Stalker series. Kolchak was a big influence on me, both as a kid and as an adult. One day I started thinking, "How would Kolchak've handled some of the stories I've covered over the years?" I've been working for newspapers for the past 16 years, and so I've encountered more than my share of weirdies. It all sort of came together after that.
Since you work for a less-than-mainstream newspaper and probably deal with many people who are similar to Roscoe's "sources," how much of The Buzzing can be said to autobiographical?
Roscoe, to put it simply, represents what I would like to be. He's what I'm aiming for in my own life. So in that, there's quite a bit of me in him. I never had the respectability he once did at an earlier stage in his life, but I can certainly shoot for the "drunken burnout crackpot" stage. As for the people he encounters and the stories he covers, an awful lot of them, albeit loosely, are based on people and stories I've encountered myself. Again, not all of them, but quite a few. For instance, there really was a radioactive corpse found in Manhattan a few years ago, just off the corner of 30th St. and 1st Avenue. Nobody was ever able to provide a reasonable explanation for why he was radioactive.
Some of the plot devices and narrative structures of your novel seem very similar to those used in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. How much influence would you say Pynchon has had on your work? Could the SVA, for example, be seen as Roscoe's own "Tristero"?
First, let me say that I would never, in any way, compare my writing with Mr. Pynchon's. That would be like comparing some slow-witted child's chalk scribbles on the sidewalk with a Bosch or a Breughel. Be that as it may, I've heard people draw Lot 49 comparisons before, and while I'm quite flattered, I guess I just don't see it myself. At least not in terms of Lot 49 specifically. There's no doubt that Mr. Pynchon's writings have influenced me, but the influence has been more in my way of thinking and perceiving the world than in my actual writing. So in the end, if there were any parallels, they were unconscious ones. I was just trying to write a funny story.
Were other postmodernists who write conspiracy theory books, like Don DeLillo, also influences on your work?
I must say, I can't really think of anyone, with the possible exception of Phillip K. Dick, though I hadn't read him since I was in college. The primary influences on the novel were, again, the pulp fiction of the 40s and 50s, film noir, Kolchak, and my own experience at the paper. Pretty lowbrow, I guess but I'm a pretty lowbrow guy.
The plot of your novel seems to utilize any number of ad hoc narrative transitions. How much was the plot of your novel determined before you started writing?
By "ad hoc," are you asking if I just made it up as I went along? If so, then the answer is yes.
Before I sat down to type, I knew where the story began and I knew where it ended. I also knew a few things I wanted to include along the way. My job was to get from one point to the other while passing through those other points in the most believably implausible way imaginable, if that makes any sense. The novel was written very quickly (it's all a bit of a blur, actually), with the various connections arising as they were necessary. That's the beauty, I guess, of employing creative paranoia if you need a connection, you simply create one.
Many of the characters in the novel other than Roscoe seem to be underdeveloped. Did you have a reason for keeping such important people as Montgomery and Emily so one-dimensional?
This is something that was levelled at me in a couple of reviews. My defence is to ask you to remember that nearly every scene in the book is viewed through Roscoe's eyes. Keep in mind exactly where that perspective comes from. How these characters are perceived says something about the way he looks at the world. What's more, recognizing that a couple characters are caricatures shouldn't come as any surprise, given that I announce as much very early in the book (at least in regards to Montgomery). It's a pulp novel, after all. (Still, I like to think there are a few odd little touches along that way in each of them that hint at something a little deeper.)
Your mastery of dialogue seems almost perfect. Would you say that you gained your skills more from movie dialogue or dramatic dialogue?
Thanks. More than anything, I think it came from simply listening to people. In New York, I'm surrounded by people all the time on the subway, on the sidewalks, in the bars and each one of them has a unique way of speaking. Different inflections, different tics. Plus, as a journalist, I've interviewed hundreds of people over the years. When I transcribe the tapes afterwards, I pay careful attention to not only what people are saying, but how they're saying it. I never did that with a mind towards anything more than that story I was working on at the time, but still, I guess some of it stuck.
I also watch too many movies, so I guess some of that probably leaked in there too.
Since paranoia is your main focus in The Buzzing, would it be safe to say that Roscoe vacillates between real paranoia and what has been called "creative paranoia"? Could Roscoe be said to be a new-age Oedipa Maas?
Again, I would never, ever compare Roscoe with Oedipa, for the same reasons I mentioned earlier. And as far as his paranoia (if that's indeed what it is) is concerned, I'd rather not come right out and say that he's suffering from the real variety or the creative variety I'd rather let the people who read the book decide that for themselves.
In writing the book, of course, I had to apply the techniques of creative paranoia throughout (it's a term I've been using freely). But in Roscoe's case, the question should remain open whether or not he's doing the same thing.
Since your novel exhibits a classic postmodernist lack of closure, which type of paranoia best characterizes your protagonist?
It's funny, the way people look at that ending. Some people say there's a lack of closure. Others say it "just stops." But there are others and I've heard from quite a few who have very definite ideas about what, exactly, happens at the end. Interesting thing is, most all of their interpretations are different, and I don't correct any of them. I have my own ideas how it ends, but I'm not telling. If other people have different ideas, that's great. And I think admitting that Roscoe was a real or creative paranoid even a paranoid at all would be giving too much away.
Some of the plot-lines in your work seem destined to remain underdeveloped, such as the Night Stalker allusion, via Kolchak, and the Godzilla allusion, via Toho Films. Is there a reason for not pursuing these plot-lines further?
This strikes me as kind of an odd question, because to my mind, I pretty much ran those two allusions into the ground. Quietly, I hope but still, there are dozens upon dozens of references to each throughout. Sometimes in a character name or a line of dialogue, sometimes more quietly than that. Some are hidden in a bunch of little puzzles and jokes I dropped in there, mostly for my own sake. (For instance, where does the name "Ed Montgomery" come from, and why?)
My first thought was to write the whole book without even mentioning the name "Kolchak." I knew if I did that, though, that some people would say, "Well, he's just ripping off The Night Stalker." I wanted to come clean, to admit freely that I knew what I was doing, and knew that other people would know, too, so I dropped the name in there once, just to make it obvious and get it out of the way. After that, I kept it buried. I didn't want the book to just be an homage to The Night Stalker, or the Toho films. They just happen to be two of the things which colour the way Roscoe sees the world and his place in it.
What have your learned from weaving sets of intricate correspondences, and has this given you any ideas for new fictional works?
Personally, I guess I've seen the world as a vast web of peculiar correspondences for some time now. Not necessarily correspondences that mean anything at all most of them don't. They aren't conspiracies so much as mere coincidences. I've been pointing them out in my newspaper work for a bit.
I've found it makes the world seem much more interesting, and much more coherent, than it actually is. More exciting, too. In my heart, I fully believe that we're under the boot of randomness and entropy. My brain, however, I guess, is always trying to piece some sort of puzzle together. I guess it was easy to bring that sort of thinking to the book, and give it a mild twist toward the sinister.
I have a bunch of ideas for future novels lined up, some involving odd webs of connection or coincidence, some not. I would like to do more with Roscoe, and have several ideas sketched out. If he gets involved, then certainly, I think I'll be able to count on him to draw some connections between things that other people might not recognize at first.
Do you see yourself writing TV or movie scripts in the future? Could you script a modern-day film noir?
Nope. I love movies too much to every get involved in their production.
Do you see yourself developing novels with less dialogue and more descriptive passages and patterns?
Well, I'll tell you, over the past 7 or 8 years as I lost most of my eyesight, I've noticed that my stories have shifted from being more visually-oriented to being more aurally-oriented. That is, I'm using more sounds and more dialogue as opposed to long descriptive passages. It makes sense, I suppose, but who knows what'll happen next? I do love dialogue. More than I do, say, descriptions of trees and whatnot.
Wim Wender's film The Million Dollar Hotel seemed to be alluded to often in your description of the SRO properties. Is there a real visual or thematic connection between the two?
I'm afraid I was never a real big Wim Wenders fan, and never saw that one. I like Werner Herzog better. The descriptions of the SROs came from, again, the SROs I've been in around New York. Sadly, there aren't that many left around.
Would you ever consider writing pure detective fiction, say in the tradition of Raymond Chandler?
I can see myself writing crime fiction before I'd write detective fiction. In crime fiction, the reader (consciously or not) roots for the criminal, as opposed to detective stories, where the reader's hoping law & order will prevail. I guess I've always rooted for the criminals Dillinger, Capone, Jack Black, Willie Sutton, whoever. They always struck me as being much more interesting. Then again, detectives like Marlowe and Mike Hammer danced the line.
Are there any other pure journalistic stories you'd like to tell?
Well, I have been following the "accident" which befell the Columbia space shuttle for a few months now. I'm waiting for NASA to admit that there was a connection between the crash and Columbia's scientific payload of Australian spiders. I'm also waiting for them to admit that those spiders are just as much alive and well as those worms they found. I figure they're getting much bigger, too.
I'll leave it at that that for now. It gets pretty complicated.
How much do Pynchon's endorsements of your work mean to your writing?
This is always tricky for me to talk about, because I still haven't come up with the proper words yet. I'm a little dumbstruck by it all. I'm a hack, and I know I'm a hack. I'm keenly aware of my limitations as a writer. That's a given. But to be in a position like that, then to have the man I've long considered to be the greatest novelist the English language has ever produced come along out of the blue and tell me I'm doing an okay job? And then to do it a second time? It's pretty goddamned astonishing, and I am unbelievably grateful.
Let me put it another way. Over the years, book reviewers, again for reasons I can't quite figure, have been very nice to me. They've been exceptionally kind. But in the end, those reviews, nice as they are, don't really mean a thing, not to me at least, when compared with those little notes Mr. Pynchon forwarded along. When the doubts begin to grow, and when I'm feeling there's no point in typing another word, when it feels like I've got nothing left to justify it, I look at those notes again, remember where they came from, and that's what keeps me going.
Cornball, I know, but true.
Is it true that for the author's picture on the cover of your novel you got Iggy Pop to stand in wearing a fedora?
I think Iggy would be deeply, deeply hurt if he heard you say that. In reality, we used a chimp. (My girlfriend took that picture early one morning down beneath the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.)
What have you got against the state of Alaska?
Me, I got nothing against Alaska. But I know a lot of people out there who call it a "land of unspeakable evil." With good reason, too, apparently.
The soil of self-reflexive paranoid culture remains fertile, and Jim Knipfel appears to be one of the best qualified writers to till it. Let's just hope that he is not under surveillance himself... (And that his office building will be able to withstand an earthquake, radioactive irradiation, or the stomping foot of a giant creature from a Toho classic!)
20 May 2003
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