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In his previous novels and short stories, Brian Leung has presented us with what seems a near encyclopedic catalogue of the ways that we, as human beings, might learn to love each other better. The sheer diversity of his imaginings on this topic is impressive enough as it stands. And yet his newest novel, Ivy vs. Dogg: With a Cast of Thousands ( May 2018, C&R Press), somehow manages to provide a fresh approach, a lens through which we might learn to see each other again in this era of political strife, and more than that: a way to laugh.
About the book:
Teenage Ivy Simmons has a longstanding rivalry with Jimmy, “Dogg,” Doggins, high school tennis star, and hometown hero. Their sparring comes to a head when the town of Mudlick’s annual Jr. Mr. Mayor election is announced and Ivy becomes the first female ever to run. Mudlick’s busybody leaders, known as “the committee” do not approve, especially when Ivy reveals that she is pregnant. Displeased with the public debate over what Ivy should do about her unborn child, reclusive matriarch, Abigail Colton, displays a lifelike topiary girl on her front lawn, enchanting all of Mudlick to the point where they fear for the life of this “girl” when Colton also rolls out a topiary of a giant squid. Between this and the election, emotions run high, squeezing Ivy and Dogg from all sides and forcing them to make the most adult decision of their lives
I spoke with Brian Leung about this warm, funny and deeply human new novel on the eve of its publication.
Let’s talk about the humor in this book. Your previous novels (Take Me Home and Lost Men) certainly had humorous moments, but Ivy vs. Dogg puts humor front and center. Was this a conscious choice or something that happened organically?
People know me as a “serious” writer but a very wise-cracking person. For some of my friends, this has always been a strange disconnect. And since you’re the first person I’m talking with about this novel, let me share that it’s a relief that the humor comes across, because the genesis involves me yelling at my car radio. I knew pretty quickly that wasn’t a good place to start writing from. The core anger, yes, but not a ferocity of righteousness. So, I went to my happy place and began thinking about what’s ridiculous about a culture insisting that it knows what’s good for women’s bodies despite what an individual woman might think.
I also thought about the whole, “it takes a village” thing with a pinch of reality that teenagers might not be fully equipped to make the best decisions for themselves without getting advice from trusted adults. Hilarious, right? But, and this is true, I decided to channel Groucho Marx’ autobiography, Groucho and Me, which I read in my late teens with relish. If I was cooler, I’d lie and say I channeled Dave Chappelle or Margaret Cho, but structurally, you can read this novel as a pile on (the committee, the disco, the fishing derby, the parade, the topiaries) as if it’s the cabin scene of A Night at the Opera. Thus the novel title’s addition “With a Cast of Thousands!” And, everyone who finishes the novel gets a cookie.
The collective committee point of view is a really entertaining aspect of this novel. Did you have other “we” points of view in mind as models when you worked on the voice? And what were some of the rules you developed as you wrote in order to maintain the illusion of the “we?”
Let’s call the committee an exasperating hoot. A couple pieces from way back have always stuck with me in terms of a collective POV; June Spence’s “Missing Women,” and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and then more recently, Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea. Getting this collective voice right was a fun, tangled web. I had to think of the individuals contributing to the collective voice, and be vigilant in allowing the committee the temerity to construct their sense of omniscience despite the reality of first person plural. And I slipped in the committee’s long history to remind myself that they’ve been telling town stories for a long time. They have this down.
It strikes me that the committee might be a way for you to comment on morality. Could you say a bit about the responsibility that you think the author has to be moral in his or her fiction? Is the committee a moral entity or a perversion of morality?
I don’t know why, but your question made me think of Harper Valley PTA and Barbara Eden, which isn’t quite the non-sequitur it seems. I see this novel as an often comic comment on how we belong to different brands of morality, and in doing so, we also assume troubling brands of supremacy and hypocrisy.
The committee presumes to create a debate on what their citizens should do with their bodies in the most “moral” way. But I’m not a moralist writer and am not interested such fiction. A close reader of this novel will likely be surprised by its basic proposal. Own yourself when you’re mature enough, and when things take a bad turn, talk to those who love you if you can. And if that isn’t possible, run to where it is. We’re waiting for you with open arms.
Let’s talk a bit more about what people should or should not do with their bodies, according to the Committee. Alongside the Ivy and Dogg plot-line, we have a consideration of what it means to be “out” in a small town like Mudlick. Having grown up in small town myself, there is a line I found particularly powerful: “I’m thinking now that shame is something that starts on the outside.” Can you talk a little bit about why it was important for you to explore this issue?
The committee imagines a homogenous community or is perhaps aspirational in that direction. My rural hometown in San Diego county was a bit like this. I was a queer, half-Chinese kid, felt invisible, and there was no way I could be out. It wasn’t until my ten year high school reunion that I learned there were a bunch of queer kids back then. Perhaps as an act of revenge against my past, in this novel I wanted for my queer characters to have both angst and agency.
You found number of inventive ways to explore the issue of abortion in the novel, one of which comes in the form of a drama that unfolds around a rather bizarre topiary.
I don’t think the novel explores abortion. There’s not a single medical scene. No pregnancy is terminated. But, as you’ve observed, there’s something about topiary here and our habit of anthropomorphizing. Why are ships “she?” Why do we name our cars and cry when we have to move on?
There’s a great topiary park in Columbus, Ohio, inventively called The Topiary Park, and in it they are recreating Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte. I’m fascinated by this simulacrum of a simulacrum. We can’t anthropomorphize those topiaries because they are modeled after paintings. But, a little girl on lawn made of green-leafed vines and modeled after a real girl might very well convince us that we are Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy. She lives and thinks and is “real” because we say so. Apparently, it doesn’t matter what the gardener thinks.
I sense you’re being a bit coy here. But let’s explore. I love the idea that we have Ivy, who is, of course, not real because she’s a fictional character. And then we have a simulacrum of Ivy, the topiary. So, in a sense, we have exactly what you were saying about the topiary in Columbus, Ohio: a simulacrum of a simulacrum. If these are the simulacra, then what is the original? What do these things copy? What is it you mean to represent?
The novel aims toward, in serious, comical, and satirical ways, a conversation about how society imagines the correct subject position for a person, compares that against the simulacrum of the supposed ideal of what a “correct” person is, with the purpose of arriving at the fantasy version of correctness. In the novel, the committee has a received and built vision of gender propriety. They value the young people performing the simulacrum of this vision. The committee and community (mostly) is so glazed by generations of this kind of thinking, that it’s nothing to ask a plant that looks like a young girl to be a spokesperson for everything they value. Golden calves are comforting and addictive. That was the discovery for me in this book.
And finally, could you tell us a bit about what you are working on now?
Oh? Who is us? That’s a bit scary (checks flower arrangement for mic). Right now, I have a novel manuscript out and about that I’ll stay mum. It has a water-filled quarry and a gay kid who knows how to keep a secret. But in terms of looking ahead, there’s so much. I’m really excited about a collection I’m putting together which is a novella and short fiction. I’ve received a Center for Artistic Endeavors Fellowship for fall, 2018, which supports time for this project. The collection will represent every crazy, dark, and literary mode I’ve taken on to this point.And after that, research in Finland for a follow up to my novel, Take Me Home. My readers told me I was too hard on the gay character in that book, so I’m going to give him his turn, albeit pre 1885. Still, he may wander off into the high desert in Wyoming. We’ll see.