Earlier this week, Dan Green (The Reading Experience) and Derik A Badman (MadInkBeard) held a dialogue on this autumn’s Read This! selection, Steve Stern’s The Angel of Forgetfulness . Read part 1 and part 2 of the dialogue, as well as Dan's initial post about why he nominated the novel for the LBC.
Now Stern himself drops by with a response.
Dear Dan Green,
First, I wanted to thank you kindly for your championing of The Angel of Forgetfulness. Thanks to you, rather than dying all at once, the book is taking its time, like a character in a Yiddish melodrama, who lies down, gets up, sings a song, lies down again, and generally takes an unconscionable amount of time to expire. I'm ordinarily pretty shy about making observations regarding my own work, and besides, your review and subsequent comments are much too incisive for me to improve on. But my silence seemed to me a bit ungrateful, so I'll try to weigh in with a comment or two.
In reading your dialogue with Derik Badman (an actual name?) [yes. - ed.] I was troubled by his reservations about the three-tiered narrative, and thought I'd make a stab at clarification.
Mocky's tale, the tale of the fallen angel, was the original kernel of the novel, which--when tossed into the fluid medium of composition--resulted in the concentric narratives of Nathan and Saul. Derik complained that for him Mocky's story (including, I assume, that of his half-angel son, Nathan) was the least compelling. I hope this isn't the case for most readers, but I understood the risks involved in conceiving a narrative as removed from the present and from normative reality as is Mocky's.
That's why I began the book with Saul, whose milieu of recent history would be most familiar to contemporary readers. In this way I meant to create an echo effect, with each of the three narratives resonating the others, so that the time and space between them was at least figuratively dissolved.
The idea being that the three separate worlds occupied by the characters in The Angel are all finally the same, one fictive menage a trios. The chaos of the Sixties and beyond inhabited by Saul is married to Nathan's turn-of-the-century immigrant scene, which is married in turn to the mythic realm of Mocky and Nachman--just as heaven and earth, the poles between which all these characters oscillate, are ideally wed in the alembic of (God help us) art and literature. But Derik seemed to feel that after Saul, whose experience is anchored to the more or less contemporary world, Nathan and Mocky's stories came with diminishing returns. Again, I hope this isn't true for most readers, but I'm aware that the farther the narrative is removed from the present, the more shadows can accrue and the sepia tones obscure. The archetypal element that Nathan and Mocky inhabit is necessarily a shadow realm, which—though it potentially deepens the mystery of the present—is in danger of being entirely eclipsed by the noisy here and now.
Derik also took issue with the circularity of Saul's narrative.To my mind this was an inevitable function of his flight from an obsession that threatened to separate him from his moment in time. Like Jonah making a detour through the belly of a whale before returning to God's mandate, Saul is compelled to flee from a fear that ultimately chases him back to himself.
Finally, I suppose it's stating the obvious to say that The Angel of Forgetfulness is in large part about the act of story-telling itself. With that in mind, if I still have your ear, may I express a tentative manifesto?
Okay, I believe that a story, if it's truly kosher, should function as a kind of cosmic template, its language tracing a prototypical pattern the way a rubbing traces the relief on an ancient tomb. Then thanks to the conjuring power of language, the story stirs the inanimate; the tomb sculpture rises up and walks abroad like a golem aspiring to humanity. Of course, in the bracing old legends golems have the strength to overwhelm us and elude our control.
A book may echo The Book more sonorously than the primary noise, a rude awakening but an awakening nonetheless. In the hands of the ideal storyteller, a narrative is a map leading back to the narrative's own source, and as in the process of Tikkun, which is the reparation of the rift between heaven and earth, the words return the sparks like a guilty Prometheus to their original flame.
The flame illuminates those places in our consciousness that have since gone dim, but unlike the burning bush, this flame can consume; revelation implies the peril of immolation. (Kafka: "A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within." Or a flame to melt it.) This is the flame that gave Adam, whose formless clay was the original golem, his brief vision of eternity, the light that allows us, here at this darker end of creation, to view the earth in all its manifest beauty and terror from the vantage of Paradise. Then we quickly close the book, extinguishing the flame, though we remain vexed and disturbed ever after by the memory of its stupefying brightness.
That's what I think; thanks again for indulging me—