We have a protagonist who traipses about Budapest with a copy of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; we have the chord pulled on a jukebox playing “Strange Fruit” in a bar called Eve and Adam’s; we have plumes of smoke rising between Moorish domes; we have gypsy pickpockets plying their trade on the Budapest subway, proximate to a seemingly Grand Guignol-esque recounting of Kristalnacht. Would you talk about the book’s take on the matter of race, & how any propositions suggested in the work might jibe with (or call into question) the post-racial era some have decreed as the West’s fitfully prevailing zeitgeist?
The word “post-racial” worries me, as if race is something—like colonialism or trauma—that we need to outgrow. Are we suffering from post-racial stress disorder (PRSD)? Clearly, my thoughts about race—and our still-racist society—informed every syllable of Extraordinary Renditions. I’m a white, male author who grew up with every possible advantage. I was raised in a Catholic family in the Philadelphia suburbs, went to good public schools, attended a snooty liberal arts college, and when I couldn’t find work I wanted to do I went to grad school instead. I am the beneficiary of every privilege this country offers. I am the status quo. The man. People don’t grab their purses closer when I get on the bus. So like it or not, I’m in a position of some authority and that carries a responsibility to ask the difficult questions of myself and of the world around me.
I wrote Extraordinary Renditions from three radically different perspectives, ones that obviously are not my own. People are going to ask, perhaps fairly, what gives me the right to write about a black character? Or about a bisexual woman? Or about a Holocaust survivor? In living with these characters for so long, in inhabiting them for years at a time—my grad school mentor Richard Powers has called me a Stanislavski-esque “method writer”—I was able to identify parts of myself in people who are outwardly different from me and, hopefully, to give them each a voice.
Do you mind talking about your time living overseas, & how your experiences specifically informed the perspectives brought to bear in Extraordinary Renditions?
My college girlfriend was half-Hungarian and immediately after graduation she moved to Budapest to study music at the Liszt Academy. I took a job at a bookstore—the Borders in Bryn Mawr, PA—where I was put in charge of arranging the remainders. I would open boxes of books by our greatest living authors, draw a dot on them with a thick marker to render them un-returnable, and slap them with discount stickers. Talk about a spectacular learning experience for a young writer! If my favorite authors were getting remaindered, what odds did I have of making it as a writer? That job was an education unto itself about the book business and I honestly believe that working in a bookstore should be part of every MFA curriculum. I met some lifelong friends there, and some of the smartest people I know. I did that for six months, enough time to raise the money I needed for my plane ticket to Hungary. Having read the littlest bit of Henry Miller, I thought I knew what I was doing in moving to Europe.
I arrived in Budapest in November of 1994. What little money my girlfriend and I had still featured hammers-and-sickles. There weren’t many western cars on the roads. Our apartment was in a prefab, communist-era ghetto on the northern edge of the city. We didn’t have a telephone, much less email. I didn’t speak the language. We knew very few people. Every comfort I had grown up with was gone. The first few months were without question the most difficult time of my life—maybe it was the first difficult time of my life. Being a foreigner and, at times, an illegal immigrant at that, certainly changed my perspective about a lot of things. I only brought a few books with me—I read The Brothers Karamazov and Mulligan Stew that first winter, two books that affected my experience in Central Europe in countless ways.
What amazed me the most about Hungary is that history is not history there. The events of the past are still present every single day, at every minute, in ways I couldn’t even imagine at first. On the little commuter train I took to get into the city, I would leave the commie condos, pass a Roman amphitheater, a field at the base of the Buda Hills where there had been prehistoric settlements, medieval ruins, a Turkish bathhouse, and a McDonald’s. Every invading army and conquering tribe had left an imprint in the Carpathian Basin. I came to realize what a young nation the United States really is—a precocious one, to be sure, and one of unique and beautiful potential.
Over the next few years, I wrote for Budapest’s English-language papers, worked as an English tutor, and eventually took a job with an American internet start-up, where I created online videogames. We moved to a better neighborhood and, needless to say, my fiction writing languished. In 1999, we moved back to the United States, to Philadelphia. I stayed in the internet industry a little while longer but hated it. I quit a high-paying e-commerce job in 2001 (shortly before the crash) in order to write fulltime, and that was when Extraordinary Renditions began in earnest. I discovered that I am completely unable to write about a place until I’ve left it. By the way, that girlfriend and I are now married and this book is dedicated to her.
Extraordinary Renditions opens with a citation from the Hungarian Marxist theorist György Lukács from his The Theory of the Novel. Some refer to Lukács as Central Europe’s last 20th century modernist of note; others recognize him as among the primary forbearers of postmodernist philosophical thought. Why have you chosen to frame the book with reference to this 20th Century Man of Letters?
First off, and this may come as a surprise to my parents, I am not a Marxist. There hasn’t been an –ism invented yet that I can buy in to, which means that Extraordinary Renditions doesn’t have a particular political agenda. The book is about these three individuals and how the stories of different peoples, when taken together, can combine to make up something greater than the sum of the parts.
I choose to quote Lukács because that first apartment in Budapest was on Lukács Gy. u. (or György Lukács Street). That’s the reason. It was in some ways an awful place to live. There were three apartments on our floor. One neighbor, Zoli, would boast about having sex with his Doberman. And I remember once coming home in the middle of the night to find a huge, red swastika painted on the floor of the entrance way. We took the rickety, semi-functional elevator up the ninth floor, grabbed a bucket of hot water and some soap, and scrubbed for an hour. But the thing is, I wouldn’t change a thing about the experience. I got to see the real Hungary and at a unique time in history. The man next door had survived several concentration camps. He would tell me stories for hours. We gave him a copy of Górecki’s Third Symphony and he would listen to it over and over. We could hear it through the walls.
György Lukács is important to me because of the association with that apartment and that time in my life. That said, in that quotation, Lukács asks, “who was to save us from Western civilisation?” It’s a good question, one that I think Extraordinary Renditions attempts to address. Western civilization is me; it’s the American tourists and expats showing up and butchering the local language.
Were the novellas actually crafted in sequence, or conceived as a compendium from the outset?
My editor and I devoted a great deal of energy to deciding whether to call the final product “3 novellas” or “a novel,” but those are ultimately meaningless distinctions. I’m pleased to report that the book we have here did not turn out as I first envisioned it all those years ago. Brutus in “Brooking the Devil” is the direct but distant descendant of a character from a truly awful story I wrote for my one and only undergraduate writing class, which was co-taught in 1993 by Elizabeth Spires and Madison Smartt Bell. That story was an abject disaster, but the character remained intriguing to me. Or maybe I’m just stubborn. Over the years, Brutus solidified into a distinct individual and I became interested in setting him loose outside the United States so that he would have a clearer vantage point of our society.
When Extraordinary Renditions began to take shape, I envisioned the book as two novellas, responding to or mimicking in some crude way the formal structure of Julius Caesar, in which the entire narrative momentum changes halfway through after the emperor bites it. “The Empty Chairs,” about two American expatriates living abroad, was to be the second part. Although those two stories did fit together, it didn’t feel complete. Something was missing, so I bailed on the formal model—those two novellas—I had been so attached to. I came to realize that I was avoiding writing about what mattered the most: how history will judge the United States.
The composer in “The Empty Chairs” started out as a minor character, but his story, as detailed in “14 Bagatelles,” triangulated the other two novellas. That title derives from an solo piano composition by Béla Bartók, but it was his “Konstrasztok” (“Contrasts”) from 1938 that best explains, I think, how the three parts of Extraordinary Renditions work together. There’s a stunning recording from 1940—shortly after Bartók fled his homeland for the United States—featuring Bartók himself on piano, József Szigeti on violin and Benny Goodman on clarinet. The three parts don’t fit neatly together, but they’re also inseparable.
For a powerful collection so steeped in the collision of history & cultures, the work’s title is ripped out of contemporary political circumstance. What are you hoping to suggest in harking to past & present in such provocative fashion?
It’s clear many of the atrocities of the twentieth century—arguably the most atrocious century we’ve yet devised—could very easily get repeated today or tomorrow or next year. Some of them are already happening right now in Africa, in the Middle East, maybe even right here at home. (I was in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward recently.) Nothing in the world could be more tragic than making the same mistakes over and over. But art—the greatest art, like Bartók’s—develops from amid the worst tragedies. Do you know the speech, supposedly taken from an “old Hungarian play,” that Welles added to Graham Greene’s script for The Third Man?
“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelango, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
So, sure, I’m going to rail against the man, but I’m also going to look for the moments of transcendence that invariably emerge from even the most degraded conditions. I’m not sure that provocation was my top priority in writing Extraordinary Renditions, but if that’s what results from the time I spent trying to understand, in some small way, these different cultures and historical circumstances, I’m OK with that.
What ideas do you intend to draw through these three novellas to afford some manner of narrative continuity &/or warrant their bundling as a whole work as presented?
If there is continuity between the novellas, it’s thematic. I’m interested in the ways that massive external forces (fate, history, racism, the government, whatever) can affect individuals. Beyond that, I wrote this book in large part out of a sense of responsibility to what I’ve witnessed and heard.
The novelist Alice Randall gave me some of the greatest advice I’ve ever received. You may recall that she had gotten in some hot water after The Wind Done Gone, the brilliant counter-narrative to Gone with the Wind told from the slaves’ perspective. She told me: Be prepared to do the hard right thing. I had been avoiding writing directly about the Holocaust. There were some personal and familial reasons for that. But to avoid it—to act like it didn’t matter in the world of Extraordinary Renditions—would have meant perpetuating the ignorance and denial that make such atrocities possible in the first place.
OK, so maybe there is one thing more tragic than making the same mistakes over and over. That’s doing nothing at all out of fear of making mistakes. I refuse to believe that there are topics I can’t write about or voices I can’t allow to sing because of my race or my gender. I want to attempt things that are difficult and make mistakes, even big ones. I’d rather fuck up royally—and it’s going to happen someday if it hasn’t already—than do nothing.
Was the jukebox playing Nina’s “Fruit,” or Billie’s?
The version of “Strange Fruit” played in the book is a garish, techno remix—and as much as I love Nina Simone, I hear it as a remix of Billie Holiday’s version. The band Tricky did a remix once, which has certainly been on my mind, though I’m conflicted about that track. I mean, you can’t just go around messing with Billie Holiday, much less with a song that carries so much historical resonance. Is there a more important or meaningful song in American history? Is nothing sacred? At the same time, who the hell am I to tell people what they can or cannot mess with? Information is meant to be free. Intellectual property is theft, and all that. So, no, nothing is sacred.