Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Death is a Cartoon: Dr. Seuss and War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite

What if Dr. Seuss went to war in Iraq?*

Of all the things to love about War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite (and there are many things to love about the novel), I was particularly struck by the colorful Seussian paintings one character, Mani, puts down on canvas as a way of dealing with her husband’s deployment to Iraq. Robinson and Kovite have said that Mani is swept up in an “emotional tornado” during this period of the book and the candy-colored cartoons which depict exploding Humvees and severed limbs are just one way the stateside spouse copes with the pain of separation.

I’ll have more on the paintings--and a conversation with Robinson and Kovite--in a minute, but first a bit about the novel in case you haven’t already read it (and if you haven’t, why not? This Veterans Day would be a good time to start reading one of the better works of fiction to come out of the Iraq War).

War of the Encyclopaedists tells the story of best friends Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy who are living a comfortable life in Seattle as the novel opens. They throw elaborate monthly parties with themes arbitrarily lifted from encyclopedias; one bash centers around “conspiracy,” another is about “monocularity” (their apartment is decorated with cyclopean monsters, monocled British financiers and a chandelier made of periscopes while Mickey and Hal go around wearing eye patches). They’re dubbed “The Encyclopaedists of Capitol Hill” and are the hit of Seattle’s hipster crowd. When we first meet them, Hal and Mickey seem to have their futures sewn up neatly. As the jacket copy of the novel tells us, “At twenty-three, they had planned to move together to Boston for graduate school, but global events have intervened: Montauk has just learned that his National Guard unit will deploy to Baghdad at the end of the summer. In the confusion of this altered future, Corderoy is faced with a moral dilemma: his girlfriend Mani has just been evicted and he must decide whether or not to abandon her when she needs him most.”

In the short time he’s been dating her, Hal hasn’t quite progressed to the next level of commitment with Mani. As Robinson and Kovite write:
Corderoy loved Mani because he couldn’t figure her out, and he had a deep need to solve things. She was a Rubik’s cube with one too many sides. No matter how he manipulated her, twisting her colors this way and that, she would always present another face, not quite aligned.

During the night of the “conspiracy party,” other things happen which will shape the lives of these characters. After Mani falls asleep, Hal seeks Mickey’s advice on what to do about his girlfriend’s homeless situation; he’s not quite ready to ask her to move across the country to Boston with him--that’s just too fast too soon. “Look,” Mickey says, “you can love her and still leave.” And so that’s what Hal does: he slips away in the middle of the night, leaving Mani asleep at Mickey’s place. When she wakes up and learns she’s been abandoned, a distraught Mani runs out of the apartment into the street and is struck by a car. This, in a sense, is a major turning point in the novel, one which thrusts the characters into a strange love triangle which will eventually see Hal move to Boston alone and Mickey hook up with Mani (whom he has nursed during her recovery). Shortly before his deployment to Iraq, Mickey marries Mani even though they aren’t sure if they’re really in love with each other. It’s complicated and I’m not going to spell it all out for you here because you need to experience it through the book itself, but I wanted you to have the setup for this excerpt from War of the Encyclopaedists which shows how Mani, missing her husband and trying to deal with her complicated feelings about the invasion of Iraq, starts moving her paintbrush across a large canvas in bold and startling strokes.

The authors have generously allowed me to reprint these two excerpts from their novel. I hope you enjoy these paragraphs as much as I did (and then stick around for my interview with Robinson and Kovite to learn more about how they collaborated on this and their next novel).

*    *    *

Shortly thereafter, she moved into a studio in Allston.

It was fairly spacious and lit by large factory windows on the eastern wall. The floorboards had been coated and recoated with thick white paint over the years as they collected uncleanable grime. With all the new art supplies she bought, with the rolls of canvas, the frames in various states of construction, the stretched and half-painted canvases on easels, the tarps and sheets and oil paints, the stacks of sketchbooks and charcoals and brushes, there was not much room for actual living. She spent most of her days painting, smoking joints, and flipping through art books for inspiration. She trashed most things she began until mid-October, when, after writing a letter to Mickey, she began a painting that felt real, that felt important.

When the subject came to her, it was not at all surprising, and she knew exactly why she had chosen it: her nominal husband was an American soldier in a war zone, and the number one cause of death for American soldiers was the Improvised Explosive Device. After looking at images on the Internet and reading some firsthand accounts, she began painting a Humvee tilted onto its right wheels, the explosion from an IED lifting it off the ground, the terrified face of the driver who knew they would flip and burn and die.

What she couldn’t explain, what she began doing without realizing it, was painting this scene of extreme and sober violence in the cartoonish style of Dr. Seuss, a surreal and childish distortion of bright primary colors and silly elongated shapes: striped and bendy palm trees, fantastic dunes in the background, the Humvee disproportionate and bright green, sporting oddly placed knobs and gears, the explosion bulging like an image under a magnifying lens propelling the truck right out of the canvas and toward the viewer, the driver’s face squashed and birdlike, six eyelashes on his wide right eye, a small pimple on his nose, the mouth a black hole with the barest hint of a tongue, a dark red mass being sucked back into the throat, a few wisps of candy-blue hair curling out whimsically from his helmet. She was drawing from a sense of loss; it was not an overwhelming condition but a subtle one that resided in the nethermost regions of her consciousness.

.  .  .  .

The next day she began work on a second painting in the same Seussian style, this time of a few bodies on the street, soldiers, clods of dirt scattered like popcorn from the small crater left by a homemade bomb. Small Iraqi children with gigantic eyes looking on from the periphery, peering out the curved windows of wobbly buildings, smiling. One of the soldiers was clearly dead, his eyes squinched into outsized X’s; the other with his legs blown off, was still alive, pleading with an outstretched hand toward the foreground, the plump four-fingered hand of a cartoon, the pool of blood and oil and dirt behind him swirling like a rainbow of melted Starburst.

It took her a week to finish, and when it was done, she felt an after-shock of what she’d felt for the first painting, but it came with a greater sense of fulfillment, that she’d brought forth value out of nothing, created something alive; she realized that she was not finished, that these were the first two paintings in a series. Over the next month, she confined herself to her studio and worked simultaneously on three new paintings. These proved more difficult, and she progressed slowly, limning the outlines of a dreamlike Bradley flipped on its back, a twisting convoy of supply trucks and Humvees, a rusty late-eighties BMW bounding through the chain-link at a checkpoint. In a month’s time, though these three were still unfinished, her confidence, her feeling of impending accomplishment, had grown significantly, enough that she took high-resolution photos of her first two and submitted them to the curators of a few Boston galleries. From then on, she worked methodically, the precision of her surreal lines and colors increasing while the rate of her progress diminished. On December 31st, she got a phone call from Mickey, on leave from his tour of duty. The last time they’d spoken, he’d flipped out and she’d hung up. She was a little wary of seeing him, but how could she not? That night, just after ten p.m., she buzzed him in and began rolling a joint while he trudged up the three flights to her studio loft. When she heard his footsteps on the landing, she panicked and quickly threw a few sheets over her new paintings, uncertain what he would think of them.

*    *    *

Gavin Kovite (left) & Christopher Robin (right) share a laugh. (Photo by Erin Pollock)

I recently spoke to Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite via email between my home in Butte, Montana and their studio at Yaddo the artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York. To some degree, their own friendship mirrors that of their characters: Gavin was an infantry platoon leader in Baghdad from 2004-2005 and later attended NYU Law and served as an Army prosecutor; Chris is a Boston University and Hunter College MFA graduate, a MacDowell Colony fellow, and a Yale Younger Poets Prize finalist. Here’s part of our conversation:

I’m curious about the collaboration process on this book. The narrative seems divided between two ids: one of Hal and one of Mickey. I assume (perhaps wrongly) that Gavin handled the Mickey sections and Chris wrote the Hal portions...but were there overlaps? At the heart of it, I’m wondering how it was that two authors came to write a single novel and how that nuts-and-bolts process worked?

We talked over the plotlines, scenes, and characters extensively both before and during the drafting process, so each of us was on board for everything that happened in the book before it was actually drafted. We did split the labor roughly along the lines of character and setting—Gavin writing Mickey and Tricia in Baghdad, Chris writing Corderoy and Mani in Boston. There were some exceptions to this, though—where Chris would write a Baghdad scene and Gavin a Boston scene. The first section of the book, set in Seattle, and the final chapters back in Boston were joint efforts. For the most critical passages, we would actually sit down at a single computer swapping in and out at the keyboard. That said, even with the scenes that we drafted individually, we co-edited each other’s work so extensively that it’s not really correct to say that either one or the other of us wrote any particular scene—it was all a joint project.

We met in 2005 during a study abroad program in Rome through the University of Washington, and became good friends almost immediately. We started idly cooking up silly characters and mystery plots to entertain ourselves while we wandered the streets. Back in Seattle, we decided to write a novel based on those characters. Actually, it was Chris who really decided to write that book; Gavin mostly went along because it was a fun thing to do together; in this sense, we’re kind of like friends who both happened to play music and decided to form a band.

We never sold that first book, but it was a fun project and taught us a lot about writing novels. Chris had the idea for War of the Encyclopaedists in 2009 when we were roommates in NYC. Gavin was hesitant to commit to another large project, as he was in the midst of law school at NYU, but he gave in. Over the next four years, we worked on War of the Encyclopaedists mostly long-distance and in intermittent bursts; Gavin had joined the JAG Corps and was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, and Chris was traveling around the country, living at artist colonies like MacDowell and writing nihilistic poems.

While I loved many things about War of the Encyclopaedists, some of the most indelible images I carried away from the novel were Mani’s Dr. Seuss-inspired paintings. Could you talk a little bit about where the inspiration for these paintings came from?

Many of our best ideas come from inhabiting character as deeply as possible. The more time we spent with Mani as the novel developed, the more we tried to refine her mode of thinking, to make her interiority distinct from that of the other characters. The most obvious distinction is that Mani processes her world in a much more visual way than someone like Hal, who attempts to fit things into boxes, creating truth tables for example.

Knowing that this mode of thinking was a deep part of Mani’s character also led to new developments in the plot that we had not originally anticipated. We knew she would be working on some paintings in Boston, but what those would be was a mystery to us at first. While Hal is mediating his experience through literature, though words, consuming rather than making, Mani deals with the emotional tornado in her head quite differently: she puts it into her art, she paints her way into understanding her lingering feelings of love for Hal, her guilt surrounding her fraudulent marriage to Mickey, and her fear for his life in occupied Baghdad. So the idea that she would make paintings of horrific violence (IEDs killing soldiers) and the terrifying threat of violence (the child with a hand grenade held behind his back), that seemed obvious. Painting them in the style of Dr. Seuss was less so. That insight (for us, and for her), came from turning back to one of the central themes in the book: the disjunct between the civilian understanding of war and its reality. Like Hal, Mani feels very divorced from the war, unsure of what is happening, if we are winning, or what it would even mean to win (which, notably, Mickey is unsure of as well!). And the two main narratives offered to Mani, the collegiate Bush-is-a-criminal narrative and the stop-Saddam-get-bin-Laden narrative, they were simplistic, absurd, explanations meant for a child. On top of that, all these characters are struggling to grow up, Mani included, and part of that struggle is a yearning for the safety and simplicity of childhood. Hence her choice to represent the horrific violence of the Iraq War in a cartoonish, absurd, and nostalgic style. She uses the tools of irony in her struggle to be sincere, to admit that she fears something that she is incredibly ignorant of, that most of us are ignorant of.

I know the two of you are collaborating on another novel. Can you tell us a little bit about it and if this current co-authoring process is any different from how you came together on Encyclopaedists?

The next book will be set in Detroit in the near future. The basic premise is that strikes a deal with the FAA to beta-test its drone delivery program in the city of Detroit. Problems and hilarity ensue. Drones get shot down, captured even. There are four main characters and dozens of secondary characters, but the plot centers on a battle of wills between two women, one an Amazon marketing exec responsible for selling the city and people of Detroit on the idea of Amazon and drone delivery, the other a local anti-drone activist who launches a guerrilla social media campaign against Amazon, drawing together a disparate group made up of graffiti artists, rappers, fashion designers, filmmakers and tech nerds. It’s a character-driven novel that explores this new technology, the rise of automation, along with race, class, and the character of our society in the post-industrial age. Tone-wise, it’s a bit farcical and comic, but with plenty of heavy and moving (we hope) material as well.

Like a lot of our ideas, we came up with this one in the kitchen during a house party (actually, it was the launch party for War of the Encyclopaedists). We pitched ten ideas to our agent, and this was the one that came out on top.

We’re attacking this book differently than the others in a few ways. First, we’re lucky enough to be full-time novelists now, which is pretty new and different, and should really shorten the timeline for this one. We’re currently working on it at the Yaddo artists colony.

Second, we did three drafts of an outline on this book, figuring out all the scenes and how it would end before setting down a single word. We’re not adhering slavishly to the outline, but so far we haven’t needed to stray too far. In six weeks at Yaddo, we’re about 200 pages in, which is hopefully about half-way to a complete first draft.

*Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) did, in fact, “go to war” with some of his early illustrative work. Some of his political cartoons, geared for adults, urged Americans to buy war bonds during World War Two. They have been collected in Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel.

1 comment:

  1. I"m half way through WOTE and don't really care if it ends, it's that good. I'd like to spend time with these people for a while longer. The interview you did is great -- writing as partners sounds almost as complicated and rewarding as a marriage.