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Mary Caponegro

Mary Caponegro’s All Fall Down, her latest collection of stories and novellas, was, for me, one of 2009’s most powerful works. It is often baroque, expansively philosophical, and darkly comic. Caponegro is a virtuoso.  Not having read any of her earlier books, I recently picked up her first book, Star Café. It’s such a strong debut. It’s invitingly dense, filled with fabulist  departures, and proves, once again, that she is a lover of elliptical language. Today, I found this interview with her. It’s from 2002, but it is incredibly informative about her process, obsessions, and influences.

Here is Caponegro responding to John Hawkes’s idea that “the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme”:

I see myself as very much a member of this renegade school, writing against the grain of the mimetic mainstream. I consider myself an avant-gardist, an experimentalist, (and admittedly in this case, a sentimentalist)—as these words are those of my mentor, John Hawkes, who gave me tremendous encouragement and urged me to follow my own idiosyncratic path in fiction. For twenty years, I’ve done so, striving to avoid concession to the status quo, and yet at this mid-career juncture, I do find myself adopting a more moderate stance: I find I have a far greater tolerance for traditional fiction, that I am better able to appreciate and learn from it than I was in the past. I no longer see the tenets of conventional mimetic fiction as precisely the “enemy,” though I deeply appreciate the rhetorical stance of Jack’s minimanifesto, and his wish to underscore the disparity between what now might be referred to as “plot-driven” or “character-driven” fiction and fiction which foregrounds voice and time and texture. The former feels not “enemy” but “other.” I think that in conventional fiction, the language functions as a means to an end: the material with which one tells the story. The reason one reads such fiction is to “see what happens” or to identify with the characters.

In the fiction I write, on the other hand, those aspects are ancillary—which doesn’t mean I am indifferent to them or consider them intrusive to my craft, but simply that they are not my highest priority. I work from ideas and images and abstractions—from an impulse to conflate the sensual and the abstract, and from an impulse to generate a species of music. For a writer such as myself, who wishes to blur the line between fantasy and reality, a crisp delineation of character and setting, etc. would not serve my purpose—whereas the creation of a mood or texture might be utterly crucial. Plot might be quite intricate, but in ways likely comprised more of nuance than event. I suppose that in my work, character tends to become merely a prop for voice, and often there are very few characters, perhaps only one speaker who refers to other characters and whom the reader experiences only through that “central intelligence.” But when characters do figure, they might have quite defined attributes. My interest is, I think, to explore them more from the inside out than from the outside in, if you will—laying bare their psyches through involution of syntax, as if syntax itself were the objective correlative—rather than giving a host of external details from which the reader can deduce internal “truths.” One could view my work as a fiction of the psychological epiphenomena of event. My tendency toward abstraction may be felt by some conventional readers to hold them at adistance, but I hope the psychological intensity compensates for this. In sum, I no longer feel it strictly necessary to view or define fiction (my own or others’) in terms of “this camp” or “that camp,” although my artistic allegiances have been crucial in my development as a writer, and I am deeply grateful to my mentors and their kin, who did the literary trailblazing that enabled me to have more options. I want to be certain that my own baroque, fragmented, convoluted ways do not turn as predictable or monotonous as the tried and true techniques of conventional fiction felt to me when I began to write—that my artistic proclivities or ideologies do not become inadvertent limitations. That danger may well be the greater, more immediate enemy!

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

4 thoughts on “Mary Caponegro

  1. I’ve yet to read Caponegro, but have wanted to after hearing her very sharp interview on Bookworm (most writers sound smart when they talk with Michael Silverblatt, but Caponegro was clearly not leaning on him for the ideas). After reading this, she’s moving to the top of the pile – thanks for posting the interview, John. (the link is messed up by the way, but I found it)
    Here’s the Caponegro interview on Bookworm:
    http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw/bw051124mary_caponegro

  2. Oops! Link should be fixed now, I think. And I didn’t know about Silverblatt’s interview. I’ll try to check that out tonight.

    I went to the library this afternoon to pick up her other collections: Five Doubts (Marsilio, 1998) and The Complexities of Intimacy (Coffee House, 2001). I’m looking forward to them, and to hearing your thoughts when you get a chance to read some Caponegro.

  3. Those last few lines are SO important to remember:

    “I want to be certain that my own baroque, fragmented, convoluted ways do not turn as predictable or monotonous as the tried and true techniques of conventional fiction felt to me when I began to write—that my artistic proclivities or ideologies do not become inadvertent limitations. That danger may well be the greater, more immediate enemy!”

    1. Yes, it’s important to recognize that self-imposed constraints can become restraints, how stylistic traits can become their own straitjackets. Having read and enjoyed her first and last books, with the intent of reading the middle two, I’m excited to see how she makes the transition from stories that are incredibly digressive, with any number of fantastic departures, to stories that I thought were incredibly digressive but now, in comparison to her earliest collection, strike me as more straightforward (but only in comparison to her own since her stories still run counter to mainstream mimetic fiction and also the reigning minimalist styles). I think she’s demonstrated how it’s possible to stay within a groove without falling into a rut.

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