I was recently asked to play a game of “Truth or Truth,” an asinine variant of an already asinine game, “Truth or Dare,” the game a transparent but ultimately futile attempt at sublimation: a redirection from the charged quality of being a stranger in a sleepy town: an escape from the anguish of having been uprooted, that uprooting being self-imposed doing nothing to assuage that feeling. After I said I was “game” (yes, I was willing to play, but I also meant less-than-half-jokingly that I was also permanently injured), I was asked: “What subjects are taboo in your writing?” Perhaps too quickly, I answered, “None.” And so the game moved on to someone else. I say, “too quickly” because after having just finished rereading (for what, the third time?) Christine Schutt’s Nightwork, preparing to teach it tomorrow, I can’t help thinking that Schutt’s writing demonstrates what I can only hope is evident in my writing, that is, a willingness to engage, to represent what is socially or culturally prohibited; to accept, that is, come to some kind of intelligent terms with the unacceptable; to sully the so-called sacred; to allow, in some way, what’s forbidden; to trespass whatever number of boundaries.
What I’m thinking about as I think about teaching Nightwork are the things it has taught and is teaching me, taught in terms of quality of attention and focus, neither of which are synonyms—Damn all thesauruses!—each of which demands strength of will and courage, and a focusing of desire tempered by compassion. I’m also thinking about it in terms of how it’s continuing to work on me after I’ve finished it, working on me like all well-crafted art and/or entertainment works on me; but also working on me in ways similar to how life’s daily indignities affect me; how the inevitable forces of human duplicity and betrayal work on me. As Brian Evenson wrote about Thomas Bernhard, to read Schutt “is to feel as if you have been possessed, as if the thoughts of others are worming their way into your skull and changing the way you parse and categorize the world.”
Schutt’s fictions encourage me to keep looking at what I don’t want to see; to keep showing what I don’t want to show; to keep showing what other people don’t want to see. They say, be scrupulous, even and perhaps especially with the unscrupulous. They say, surrender to a simultaneously coldly remote and devastatingly close perspective: think of yourself as a kind of static and unwavering camera, allowing things to fold and unfold in its various framings, and, through the peculiar and particular representations that may result, trust that the complexities of human intimacy will be captured and that an unforced critique of the base and the horrific will surface.
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.