The Allure of Orthodoxy




AT THE BEGINNING of the The Long Corner, Alexander Maksik’s fourth novel, we find the narrator, Sol, begrudgingly attending a New York City party when he receives an invitation to an island retreat called The Coded Garden. He is to interview its enigmatic and guru-like founder, Sebastian Light. Sol was once a chronicler of the lives of New York’s bohemian and avant-garde artists, but he now works in advertising and lives opulently but unhappily with his girlfriend, Charity.

Sol resists the invitation initially but acquiesces and sets off for the retreat, where he is pushed to write a profile of Light. At the same time, however, he is seduced by many of its trappings. The mystery that remains for Sol and for the reader is what lies behind Light’s project. Eventually the details are filled in, culminating in a spectacular climax to Sol’s adventure.

Maksik’s book is part psychological thriller, part satire. It parodies the intersections of New York art culture, new age philosophies, and advertising lingo. The book also serves as a commentary on the tumult of American life during recent years and the ways in which people tried to confront the disorder or, more commonly, look away from it. The Long Corner is a riveting read by an abundantly talented writer and storyteller. Maksik and I spoke via email.

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SCOTT BURTON: You begin your book with a quote from John Berger: “The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class.” Why did you choose to open the book with this quote?

ALEXANDER MAKSIK: Part of what drove me to write this novel was an interest in notions of purity, particularly within the realm of art. Maintaining one’s integrity in the face of pressure to conform is an age-old problem, and it is a perennially fascinating one. Were it not, we wouldn’t be so steeped in stories of tortured visionaries desperately clinging to their souls — from Beethoven to Basquiat, Dickinson to Cobain. The Long Corner wrestles with this problem (though its protagonist is no visionary, no genius). It also pokes a little fun at our preciousness, our tendency to take ourselves too seriously. On the other hand, it does seem to me that we’ve entered a period in which the idea of maintaining some loyalty to the wildness and mystery of imagination (as opposed to serving the goals of social progress) has become, to many, old-fashioned and irresponsible. The Berger line raises a few crucial questions: Who exactly is the ruling class these days? What are their ideological interests? And, above all, how shall we resist them?

The book reads as a psychological thriller. The story is imbued with mystery. How were you able to achieve this feeling so effectively?

Thank you for saying so. I’m glad that you read the novel in that way. I never outline my novels and, in early drafts, think very little about endings, or, for that matter, middles. Perhaps the reason the book reads like a mystery is because it was one to me, as well; for so many of the years that I was writing it, I had no idea where it was headed.

There are numerous references to the Holocaust and concentration camps in the novel. The narrator Sol’s Jewish heritage and family history are continually evoked. Could you tell me more about the importance of history in the making of this text?

The novel is, among other things, about the allure of various orthodoxies and the resonances between them. Hitler (like so many tyrants and gurus before and after) was appealing primarily because he made the world appear simple and clean and easy to comprehend (which is, by the way, what the worst art does). Sebastian Light, with his codes and rules, performs a similar function for his acolytes, who can abandon their moral systems in favor of his. On the other hand, Sol’s grandmother, who lost everything but her life in the Holocaust, devotes herself to what she would call true artists: people who reject simplicity in favor of imagination and mystery and discomfort. There are many answers to your question, but above all is that, very early on, I saw this as a novel that would address the subtle connections between seemingly disconnected orthodoxies. Obviously, a murderous dictator is not the same as those who insist that we should eat only raw food or that there is only one righteous way to make art, but I do believe the instincts arise from the same place.

At one point in the novel, a character argues: “Art without aim, without argument? All that is nothing more than decadence.” Should art make arguments? If so, what is the argument you are making in The Long Corner?

Too often editorials and sermons masquerade as art. I have the impression that, without regurgitating some version of what we’ve been fed in those dreaded and ubiquitous “think pieces,” it is far more difficult to find a publisher, a gallery, a producer for our work. In films, in novels, in paintings, the party lines are increasingly evident. The language is the same, the ideas are the same, and, as a result, we are flooded with art that has a depressingly clear answer to that awful, insipid question: What is your message? What do you want to say?

Doubt and mystery, strangeness and wonder have fallen out of fashion, and I think that bodes poorly for all of us. I’m reading Jed Perl’s wonderful book Authority and Freedom: A Defense of the Arts. In it, he writes, “I want us to release art from the stranglehold of relevance — from the insistence that works of art, whether classic or contemporary, are validated (or invalidated) by the extent to which they line up with (or fail to line up with) our current social and political concerns.” I want the same.

Your novel paints a bleak picture of the future for the United States and the world. Would this be a fair reading of your book?

The world is pretty bleak these days. I struggle to see it otherwise, but I have a two-year-old daughter, so I suppose I’m contractually obligated to do my best. Writing novels used to be the most hopeful thing I did. Now it’s being a father. That said, I don’t think The Long Corner paints such a bleak picture. In fact, I see it as a book of faith, a love letter to resistance, to futile fidelities, to ambiguity. None of this will save what appears to me now as an unsavable planet, but, despite that, I maintain my own faith in the ability of art to make life here more pleasurable, meaningful, tolerable, and wondrous. For whatever that’s worth.

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Scott Burton is a literary interviewer and programmer based in San Diego.

 

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