Kenneth Gangemi on Nonsense, Assemblage, and the Mask of Fiction

Kenneth Gangemi was born in Scarsdale, New York, in 1937 and earned an engineering degree in 1959. He eventually gave up engineering to devote himself to writing. His most recent novel, The Interceptor Pilot (Marion Boyers, 1980), portrays Gangemi as a master of minimalist technique in which his narration is devoid of any personal or moral judgement. His other books are Olt (Marion Boyers, 1969), The Volcanoes from Puebla (Marion Boyers, 1979), Lydia/Corroboree (Christian Bourgois, 1980), and Corroboree (Assembling Press, 1977). He currently works at one of his favorite jobs--tending bar in New York City.

Interviewer: As the epigraph to Corroboree, you quote William Pitt saying, "Don't tell me of a man's being able to talk sense; everyone can talk sense. Can he talk nonsense?" What is the purpose of nonsense in your work, and what is the value of nonsense?

Gangemi: Corroboree has almost all the nonsense I've written, although some is in Lydia. None of my other books--Olt, The Volcanoes from Puebla and The Interceptor Pilot--contain any. The most important purpose is the delight of nonsense for its own sake. Its principal value is that people who read and appreciate nonsense are better equipped to cope with the madness of the modern world, especially as reported via the print and electronic media. In A Nonsense Anthology, Carolyn Wells opened her introduction with, "On a topographical map of literature, nonsense would be represented by a small and sparsely settled country, neglected by the average tourist, but affording keen delight to the few enlightened travelers who sojourn within its borders."

Interviewer: In your book about the motorcycle trip through Mexico, The Volcanoes from Puebla, and in The Interceptor Pilot, in which you construct your fiction objectively and without authorial prejudice, you create scenes and let the scenes speak for you, completely without the trappings of Victorian digression and seemingly without moral interference. What's your opinion on the renewed push for a 'moral fiction?' And, with your emphasis on objectivity and nonsense, does your work forego a moral sense?

Gangemi: When I heard a few years ago that John Gardner had published a book with the title On Moral Fiction, I had not the slightest interest in reading it. If there is a renewed push, as you say, for a 'moral fiction,' I am unaware of it. Perhaps we don't read the same magazines. It's true that objectivity is a characteristic of at least three of my books, but I don't think that they forego a moral sense at all. Morality is perhaps the most important theme in The Interceptor Pilot. In Olt, the central theme of alienation is so overwhelming that morality is hardly brought into question. Yet Robert Olt, attempting to survive his culture and society, leads a highly moral existence. The morality in Lydia and The Volcanoes is contained in the style of life and the sense of values that is gradually expressed throughout the two books. The satire of Corroboree attacks hypocrisy and can therefore be said to serve a moral purpose.

Interviewer: Corroboree and The Volcanoes are manufactured of the short, often ideogrammatic dialogue, phrase, paragraph or subchapter. Are these to be read as individual fictions? Similarly, in your second book, Lydia, your phrasings are asyntactic and simplistically constructed. Would you consider your works minimalistic?

Gangemi: Yes, they can be read individually, especially by the reader who has a short attention span. Many people read only a few sections and then replace the bookmark. Lydia is the most minimalistic of my books.

Interviewer: Plot, scene, dialogue and panorama often are considered primary to the traditional novel. What characteristics do you feel are important in the construction of a novel?

Gangemi: I have never written a traditional novel, have no interest in writing one, and seldom read them, so cannot answer you.

Interviewer: Can you tell me something, then, about the construction of your work?

Gangerni: This question will be difficult to answer because I wrote/composed/assembled Olt a long time ago. The book was published in 1969, but I effectively finished the manuscript in 1967. That was twelve years ago. Quite frankly, I forget some of the steps in its completion. If I remember some of the steps, I forget the underlying reasons. Before Olt, I did a great deal of reading of modern literature. I saw what I liked, what I thought worked, and of course I saw what I disliked and what I thought was out of date. At the time I started writing there was still an enormous carry-over from the 19th Century. There still is, as a matter of fact, and much too much. I wanted my writing to take into account the rise of journalism, movies, and television. Anything that could best be expressed in those mediums I did not want in my writing. This concept is hardly new. One of Ezra Pound's aphorisms is "In all cases one test will be, 'could this material have been made more efficient in some other medium?' " Another factor is that in my reading I was in the habit of underlining books. Then when I finished the books, I would re-read just the underlinings, what I thought were the good parts. It impressed me, even with the best authors, that the good parts were carried in a vast matrix of neutral writing that meant little to me. It was my idea to write something that would basically consist of good bits strung together. There would be something in every sentence. To accumulate good phrases and sentences takes quite a long time. I once figured out that I wrote Olt at the rate of about twenty words a day. And that is a full day of work. If certain aspects of literature are lacking in Olt, it is probably because I think that dialogue on the printed page cannot compare with dialogue coming from the movie screen, with accents, voice qualities, emphasis, expressions, action, and everything else. Plot is also lacking in Olt. There is only a simple time-sequence. I have no interest in plot. I think it is important in movies, but not in imaginative writing. So I decided that there would be no plot in Olt. The time-sequence and the quality of the writing would be enough to carry the reader onward through the book. (I have an enormous regard for the reader, by the way, and always have. I go to great pains to make my books readable.) The character of Robert Olt is of course the transformed author, both a mask and a revelation. Anyone who reads the book knows a great deal about me. Another aspect of the book is that I decided against the usual mixture of characters. I saw characters as essentially false. They are make-believe, everyone knows that. The only character is the author. We all know that books are written by people sitting at typewriters.

The Mexico book is the descendant of Olt. Even the mask of fiction is dropped. Everything really happened. It is one human being communicating to another, in almost total honesty, which is hard to come by. I feel the same thing when I read Orwell's nonfiction. Or Montaigne, Thoreau, Darwin, Forster, Emerson, Rilke, and many others. The short length of Olt was no accident. It was about one-quarter the length of normal books. I figured that journalism, the movies, and television got the other three-quarters. The urban setting was decided upon rather early. I carefully made it possible for it to be any major American city, so that readers all across the USA could identify with Olt's city. In reality it is a compilation of San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and a few other places. Olt is single. Perhaps in some inexplicable way I forecast the rise in the number of single people. All of us see the world from behind one pair of eyes; all of us are essentially alone. Olt lives a simple, rather Spartan existence. In part this was a reaction to my own bourgeois background. But I guess I also intended it to be a model. Olt is totally anti-materialistic. He is completely apart from the obsessive consuming that is so characteristic of American life. I think Olt does worthwhile things. He uses his mind and senses in the best ways. Almost everything he does is free. The reason for the three stories is this: when I finished the first one, I continued to accumulate material. When the time came to put it together, I saw that I liked the form and structure of the first story. And so I decided to use it again. This carried on to the third story. After it was finished, and about 10,000 words, I knew it was time to go on to something new. Besides, 10,000 words can be designed rather nicely into a 64-page book, which I think is a perfect size.

Interviewer: Would you say your writing is closer to photography rather than to music or the other arts?

Gangemi: Yes, closer to photography and drawing and painting. I started out as a child who liked to draw. With different influences I might have developed into an artist.

Interviewer: Other than constructing these verbal collages, how else, if you could choose, would you make your work?

Gangemi: Possibly I would like to be some kind of collage artist. I would still assemble, select and present in a manner that was pleasing to me. Basically it would still be making an artistic order out of chaos.

Interviewer: How did you write The Interceptor Pilot? Your works have a definite European feel to them; perhaps you could also tell me who a few of your favorite artists are, or whom you might emulate.

Gangemi: The Interceptor Pilot was written in an entirely different way. I got the idea for it in September of 1966, at about the same time that the book begins. I had been out of the navy for over four years, but I remembered a great deal about flying. In eight days of intense effort I made notes about all aspects of the film, scissored and classified them, and then typed them up in a coherent order. But I could do nothing with these notes at that time. It was a film idea, and I was vastly inexperienced in the literary world, let alone Hollywood and the film industry. My first story had been published only a few months earlier, and I did not yet have an agent. The idea for Pilot was excellent, but it required a more mature writer. I didn't know what to do, so I put the notes in a file folder and almost forgot about them. Over three years passed. I acquired an agent and published my first book, Olt. Then one day I remembered my film idea. I figured I would rework it and send it to my agent to see what she thought. I had planned on a two-week project, but became re-involved in the idea, very excited by it, and spent eight months. It was extremely difficult, for I was attempting to transfer film to the typewritten page, an impossible task. Every sentence was a struggle and a new challenge. In the end I had a 98-page manuscript that was a weird kind of cinematic novel. I had never seen anything like The Interceptor Pilot before, and neither had my agent. It took me ten years to get the book published. Gerard-Georges Lemaire published a French translation in Paris in 1975; and Marion Boyars published it in England and the United States in 1980.

Interviewer: Favorite writers?

Gangemi: Too difficult to answer. It would require a literary essay, "What James Joyce Has Meant to Me." If people ask me to name a favorite writer, I might give his name first. Or second or third. Of all his books, the most meaningful has been Ulysses.

Interviewer: Let's go back then to the writing of some of your other books.

Gangemi: I have already mentioned some aspects of how I work, so parts of this answer may be repetitive. Basically I regard phrases and sentences as elements that are collected into paragraphs. For examples, look at most of the paragraphs in Olt and Corroboree. Many of the paragraphs could be scissored into their composite sentences, and the sentences could stand alone. I wrote and accumulated the sentences and then simply put them together in what seemed to be a good order. They are often simple declarative sentences. The phrases and sentences can also be regarded as "building blocks." In poetry I frequently start out with only two words that go together nicely. That is about the smallest element. I cannot control the subject matter of the phrases and sentences. They come in a random and unpredictable order. In the past I have classified the little slips of paper by placing them into envelopes with "titles" on them. In Corroboree the titles were "Businessman," "University," "Restaurant," "Politician," and so on. Some envelopes were never used, because I did not accumulate enough material. The envelopes I use are the cheapest white envelopes 31/2 by 6 1/2 inches. I buy them in quantity. They fit nicely into a shoebox, where I place them in alphabetical order. One of the advantages of this system is that nothing has to be thrown away. The mediocre or unused bits simply remain in the envelopes after the good bits are removed and assembled. Every bit goes through a sequence of editings. By the time it appears in the finished manuscript, it has passed about six or seven editings. When the time comes for an assembling, I use a worktable with lots of space. I spread the scissored bits upon it. At first it is chaos, but then two bits seem to go together. Then a third, and a fourth. An order begins to suggest itself. Eventually the bits are taped to sheets of paper and then typed up into what I call a first draft. Naturally much revision is needed after-wards, but I have the basics of my paragraphs. It is obvious from what I have already said, but I regard a scissors as extremely important. With this system I can work on different projects at once. In a day of work (while concentrating on one project) I might also come up with three bits of poetry, one of nonsense, two ideas for a comic film, three sentences of nonfiction, etc., depending upon how my mind is working that day. On all projects I keep running notes, where I "talk to myself" about techniques, structure, etc. This is necessary because I frequently have to interrupt projects. With notes it is easy to review what I have done when the time comes to resume work. This method of writing is certainly not original. It is surprisingly easy if the writer has patience, and is meticulous and organized. I think many writers use different variations of this method. I heard of one who puts individual sentences on 3 x 5 cards, and then organizes the cards.

Interviewer: Now, two final questions. First, how did you become involved with books instead of some other medium?

Gangemi: I suppose the underlying reason is that reading became an important part of my life from early childhood on. (Fortunately I grew up before the era of television.) I loved to be alone with a book. No one could bother me, and I could think whatever I wanted to. From a love of reading came the next step, the discovery of favorite authors. Then in college I was introduced to the great modem writers of the 20th Century. If I did not find all the answers in their books, at least directions were indicated. These books probably became more valuable to me than anything else. I could believe in them. From there it was a logical step to wonder if I could ever be a writer. In December of 1958, while skiing in Vermont during a college vacation, I met a man about twenty years old who had sold a few short stories to magazines. He was the first writer I had ever met, and because we were about the same age, I could relate to him. The authors I saw on the jackets of books were older men. After talking with this young man, it took me about 2 1/2 years of thinking before I actually decided to learn to write. I started in San Francisco in the spring of 1960.

Interviewer: Finally, what kind of time is this to be a writer in?

Gangemi: It is a great thing to be a writer, now or at any time. Expressive or expository writing will always be one of the best ways for one human being to communicate with another. It is all terribly obvious, so I won't go into it here. The value of books and reading has been written about for thousands of years.

Interviewed by George Myers Jr. in 1981


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