Stephen Beachy: Real vs Unreal
“I must insist on the reality of Jake Yoder’s existence. I have no great interest in deceiving anyone–at the same time, I’ve discovered that you can say anything with a straight face, and somebody will believe it.”
When I came across the book description for Stephen Beachy’s new novel, boneyard (Verse Chorus Press), I knew immediately that I had to read it. “Jake Yoder,” the description from Verse Chorus Press begins, “a precocious boy caught between Amish culture and the modern world, sits in his sixth-grade classroom writing stories at the behest of a stern but charismatic teacher. Jake’s stories feature children who are crushed, imprisoned, and distorted, yet somehow flailing around with a kind of bedazzled awe, trying to find a way out.” The story builds in layers like new skin over wounds, thickening and complicating as Stephen Beachy himself and his editor at Verse Chorus Press argue in the footnotes over the existence of Jake Yoder: Beachy insists that Jake Yoder is real; his editor insists that he’s nuts. Beachy, who as a journalist famously unmasked JT Leroy in New York magazine, uses boneyard to play with his own notions of identity, trauma and authorship.
Lyrical, mesmerizing, and somewhat deranged, boneyard maintains its pull throughout. Reading it was a curious, disquieting experience; as the author is himself a significant character in the story, I alternated between cursing and acclaiming him aloud. I quickly requested an interview, which follows.
Please choose from the following list the words that best describe how you’d ideally wish readers to feel during or after reading boneyard:
confused lost discouraged amused haunted intrigued
disoriented offended scorned bloated titillated infuriated
exposed aroused itchy epileptic irritated used
inspired provoked nauseous suspicious bored disturbed
Please provide any additional words that you’d add to the list if you could.
Hmmm. That’s quite a list. I guess I would hope that any response would be complex and multi-faceted, so the fact that you would offer such a list is encouraging. In that sense, it might be easier for me to pluck words off of the list. It certainly isn’t my intention to offend anyone. At the beginning of this song “Maggotbrain” by Funkadelic a voice from outer space intrudes – I think it’s George Clinton, although it might be Bootsy Collins – and says, “I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe. / I was not offended. / For I knew I had to rise above it all / or drown in my own shit.” That sums up my view toward “being offended” pretty well. Life is extreme, full of pain and horror, and so our attempts to process that and to deal with it are sometimes extreme as well. It is the attempt not to process those realities that I find offensive – the fact that we rarely see images of the burned and dismembered victims of American drone missiles, for example, offends me deeply. My own sensibility – I can’t speak for Jake’s – is informed by punk rock and the sort of self-consciously “transgressive” literature that developed in the 80s and early 90s in response to a very different social context. boneyard pretty clearly examines that romantic vision of the literary or artistic outlaw in the face of a corporate culture that has thoroughly co-opted it. Pornography doesn’t often offend me, even violent or extreme pornography – at least it’s honest about what it is. I’m getting toward the idea of “titillated” and “aroused” as well. If anyone is titillated or aroused by boneyard I would hope it would be a complex response.
Certainly Jake enters the pornographic imagination. The pornographic imagination is deeply intertwined with the pain and horror of life. Some of that comes from our basic biological reality, which is unpleasant enough, and much of it comes from our social structures. Biological life has been completely degraded and continues to become more and more degraded in novel and more horrific ways, so it is inevitable that our horrible social structures – our schools, prisons, families, slaughterhouses and farms – become sites for the pornographic imagination. I would hope that boneyard opens up a conversation, as it says somewhere in one of those footnotes, between conscience and dreaming. If readers feel confused, lost, discouraged, or disoriented I would hope those would be temporary states. Amused is good. I definitely think the frame is darkly funny at times. I think Jake’s stories are occasionally darkly funny as well, but not as often — I think the frame offers some relief and some distance from narratives that might otherwise be a little unrelenting. For me the comic view of the world is deeply entwined with an unblinkered gaze at its horror and suffering, and for me comedy never cheapens the seriousness of those other elements. I just recently read Michelle Tea’s memoir, for example, The Chelsea Whistle, which is very funny and yet simultaneously full of honest pain and darkness. And I love that. Or in the work of other authors I love, Mario Bellatin, Roberto Bolano, Ascher/Straus, Stacey Levine, Joy Williams. But that’s partially a matter of taste, or of worldview, or whatever it is. But definitely the book isn’t meant ultimately as light (or dark) comedy, there’s a very serious core in there. Intrigued and disturbed are good. Scorned or used or bloated, I hope not at all. Provoked, inspired, haunted and suspicious, definitely.
So does it matter? Does it matter if “JT LeRoy” never lived in a squat, if he never tricked on Polk Street, never was a lot lizard, isn’t from West Virginia? Does it matter if he is, more or less, a 39-year-old mother named Laura Albert, originally from Brooklyn? Where’s the harm?
I’d ask the same thing of Jake Yoder. Does it matter if he’s real or not? Reading the book, I never once believed that he was, and further I didn’t care. Assuming Jake Yoder is not real, essentially boneyard is you writing the life work of a fictitious messed up Amish kid apparently obsessed with pederasty, with footnotes of you–as the editor of you– arguing with yourself as an editor of yourself as an editor of you, who is slowly becoming more obsessed with you as editor of you, and is beginning to date the officer that found your fictitious Amish mother’s dead body in a lake.
Reading it was sort of like being in a postmodern blender. There were times when I wanted to slip in my own footnote and ask about your overall purpose. It was right around then when the drawings of executions started showing up…..
So, my first question regarding the veracity of Jake Yoder is, do you think it really matters whether or not Jake Yoder is real? Why or why not?
My next is– what the hell were you thinking?! Did it hurt as much to write it as it did to read it?
I must insist on the reality of Jake Yoder’s existence. I have no great interest in deceiving anyone–at the same time, I’ve discovered that you can say anything with a straight face, and somebody will believe it. I’m interested in the suspension of disbelief and in expanding that suspension outside of the bounds of the book, into the world, in a sense. That blurry zone of fact and fiction already clearly exists in the world, around all kinds of products publicized as “based on actual events.” At the same time, the promotion of books is deeply entwined with the promotion of the author and the author’s supposed personality. We like our authors to be colorful, with histories full of charming anecdotes, strange experiences, odd and wonderful, but not too odd and wonderful. We live in a time that Gary Indiana described as the era of Total Public Relations. It isn’t accidental that Jake has a Facebook page — Facebook is an incredibly banal and yet deeply creepy world where the line between actual friendship and unrelenting self-promotion is blurry at best. These are questions that interest me, partially as critique of contemporary culture, the constant demand to package the self as a product to be consumed, and in deeper ways that are addressed in the book. The question of what is the self, what is the personality, how is a sense of a coherent self created — questions that are part scientific, part psychological, part mystical. I sometimes think of boneyard as a cross between Kathy Acker and Agota Kristof, two authors who both directly dealt with the relationship of the self to narrative. Kathy borrowed texts as part of her technique and in the process inhabited other voices, as an exploration of where the “I” comes from, adopting the voices of famous murderesses, for example. In her great trilogy (The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie) Kristof is simultaneously creating masks and peeling them back, suggesting a coherent personality at the core of the work, a personality that is never revealed. Her work really got me interested, as a writer, in that question of how you could imply a personality — perhaps completely fictitious — as the author of the work. The frame of boneyard suggests two possible personalities as the psychological ground for the novel’s obsessions, shifts and images — I insist that Jake wrote it and that it makes sense, based on his biography, and Judith insists that I wrote it, and that it makes sense based on my biography.
I would ultimately argue for the fiction of either of those positions, not at all based on the answer to the question of whether Jake exists (or whether I do) but in a more Jungian sense. When we read fairy tales, we can read them at many different levels — Hansel and Gretel, say, seems to be a tale about children, with a certain amount of practical advice for children who might end up in a home with a step-parent who doesn’t love them. At the same time, as a myth it operates on all kinds of other levels. Pynchon examined some of these in great detail in Gravity’s Rainbow — there’s a way that fairy tale creatures are always also adults, facing the basic questions of life — how do we trick the witch who wants to put us in the oven, how do we find our way back, since we’re all of us lost in the woods. Jung would probably say that Hansel and Gretel represent a single individual — the male part and the female part struggling to maintain a kind of coherence. It might also be read as a fairy tale about the fate of humankind in general and the path of the species through time. What I’m trying to suggest is that Jake’s fairy tales are ultimately representing the monstrous and beautiful, victimizing and victimized, male and female, child and adult faces more as deep archetypes that hopefully allow anyone to see themselves in the mirror than as expressions of a particular biography.
So then I don’t think it matters, in the sense that any text is ideally much larger than its author and means much more than its author knows – in the sense that texts are always collaborative, always emissions from the culture at large. What I do think is important – or at least interesting — is the sort of “belief” readers conjure in that existence. Many of us don’t “believe” in much of anything, except with those scare quotes around the word, and the very idea of “the willing suspension of disbelief” suggests that there are many positions we can inhabit along the spectrum of belief and disbelief. I find the possibility of simultaneously inhabiting several different positions on that spectrum and the mind’s ability, in general, to inhabit many different planes of reality to be extremely important – it’s the beginning of real intelligence.
If you believe my version of the book’s composition (but clearly you don’t), it involved me piecing together Jake’s stories from his half-burned manuscript. There’s a quote from somebody somewhere that has sometimes guided my thinking – and I can’t remember who said this – but it’s something about having the courage to follow your characters into hell. The process of rebuilding the text would certainly require me to enter Jake’s hell. That’s a sort of empathetic goal, but it would be ridiculous to say that writing something and living it are equal terms. Writing doesn’t really cause me pain, it’s more likely to release me from pain. I did go to Nickel Mines in 2006 after the shootings and speak with the families of the dead and wounded girls, and that was painful on many levels. Again, I would hope it would be obvious that whatever pain I felt as a journalist or whatever pain I felt reliving parts of my childhood through my proximity to Amish culture are barely noteworthy in relation to the pain of the actual girls and their families.
For the next two questions, let’s assume that Jake Yoder is you writing as Jake Yoder.
1.What inspired you to write boneyard?
Hypothetically, had I written it, my inspiration probably would have come partially from other texts — the Brothers Grimm, Kathy Acker, Stacey Levine, Agota Kristof and the many multibiographies written by multiple personalities. I’ve been fascinated by Multiple Personality Disorder and the epidemic of MPD in this country in the 80s which gets at a whole range of questions about the reliability of memory, abuse narratives, the response of individuals to trauma. Jake’s stories seem to speak to many of those questions in particular ways, hopefully brought to an interesting point of conflict in the relationship between text and frame. Writing is always primarily an investigation for me. It’s about dragging things out and puzzling through them. It’s not about answering questions. It’s not really about biographical material, not anymore, or at least not primarily. It’s often about the biographical material of other people – my friends or people I know or even people I read about in books. My own obsessions would definitely be present, but my own obsessions are fairly abstract and probably wouldn’t be obvious. I’m not really interested in molested and murdered children, for example, although my last book, my two novellas, featured such children prominently as well. I am interested in how narratives of abuse haunt our culture. I’m interested in how the mind responds to extreme situations. I’m interested in how to create narratives of liberation or resistance in the face of the relentless degradation of biological life on our planet and – I’m just guessing – throughout other corners of the multiverse as well.
2. How did you “find” Jake Yoder as a character?
As an actual entity, I glimpsed him first as a blur at the edge of my vision and then there he was with his manuscript in hand. The Amish and the Amish frame of mind aren’t exotic to me, and neither are disturbed children – or formerly disturbed children now all grown up — I’ve known many people from both categories, and so it was easy enough to strike up a conversation.
For the following question, let’s assume that Jake Yoder is real (and that his realness matters)
In his stories, Jake Yoder repeats many images and events, employing the same descriptions and often even literally the same sentences through different stories. As his editor, why did you opt to retain these repetitions?
There’s a lyricism in those repetitions that I find fundamentally pleasing. They also get to the sense of obsessiveness, of running over the same ground, retelling the same stories, that is central to a reader’s sense of Jake’s mind.
Now let’s go back to assuming he’s your brilliant fictitious character. I loved the repetitions, the sickening and traumatized cycles, the dualities that merged and split. Jake Yoder’s voice is like an undertow dragging us far deeper into nightmare and feeling than the catty back and forth footnotes of Stephen and Judith. How did you find and hear his voice, and was it difficult to separate from the voices of Stephen and Judith in your writing?
Whether you understand the separateness of Jake’s text from the footnotes as a literal or metaphoric truth, it works the same way. Jake’s text preceded the notes. I think I’ve already discussed as far as possible the process of finding Jake, but his separateness was never an issue. The voices of Judith and Stephen were attached to his text after the fact, but also arose from the text, from re-reading and interacting with the text, so if “our” madness seems to parallel Jake’s, it’s in a way that’s organic to that process. It’s about Jake’s voice entering ours as opposed to our voices somehow limiting or controlling his.
Several times in boneyard the footnote-and-forward Stephen mentions a novel that he is writing. Are you really working on a fiction novel about your encounters with Jake Yoder? If so, any idea when we might expect to see it?
Yes, the novel is called Glory Hole. It’s almost 700 pages long and deals with a wide variety of characters with different plots and sub-plots – my meeting with Jake (called Amos in the novel) is just one of many, not the most prominent. There is another large literary mystery at its center reminiscent of the case of JT LeRoy, there’s a kidnapping, there’s a homeless refugee from the Mormons who gets involved in porn, there’s a pregnant woman who dresses up as a clown to follow her husband around, afraid he’s having an affair. It’s more focused on the long-term trajectories of a group of Bay Area writers and artists. Despite its examination of the ravages of time, it’s more of a comic novel and fairly traditional in its structure and narrative drive. It isn’t about murdered and molested children at all. I expect to finish it by early 2012 and to then begin trying to find an agent to help me sell it. I imagine savvy editors and agents will jump all over such a funny and intelligent and dramatic and potentially bestselling book, so maybe 2013 or 2014 it hits the streets.