Author Alexander Boldizar Interviewed by Christoph Paul
The Ugly is of my favorite current novels. It is hilarious, intelligent, challenging, and entertaining. I got to interview the author Alexander Bolidzar. A man as interesting as his novel, which you can see in his Wikipedia page.
1) What was harder Harvard Law or writing this novel?
The novel—why do you think it’s called The Ugly? Ok, that’s not why it’s called The Ugly, but the book was definitely the more challenging of the two. Also the more rewarding.
I grew up with a mindset that whatever the system is, so long as its rules are consistent I should be able to adapt. Law school is fairly consistent, even if it’s not always honest and includes some rather neurotic social rules. The book, however, never stopped being difficult.
The whole idea of the “two eyes,” where Muzhduk has to win in both subjective and objective terms, both defeat his opponent and climb a higher mountain, seemed to parallel the difficulties I encountered in writing a book that was supposed to work both on the surface plot and on deeper thematic levels, honoring the reader’s right to be entertained without simplifying the questions I was trying to ask in writing it.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, yet the beholder can improve his or her taste through experience—but not in any kind of quantifiable way. All the arts are simultaneously subjective and objective in this way. The key to improvement is self-doubt, at least for me, but then you have to combine that with the confidence to push through.
Writing the book forced me to overcome some of my own personal blocks, maturing enough to find ways to bridge that gap between plot and theme, confidence and doubt, entertainment and authenticity.
2) Muzhuk the Ugly the 4th was an amazing and original character. How much of yourself is in that character and when did you first think of him?
I try to resist biographical decoding, but it’s hard to deny that most debut novels have autobiographical elements. I do play with lines throughout the book, every line I can find. Half the slogans on the Harvard library walls are real, half are made up, for example, and the same is roughly true for Muzhduk. Which parts are which depends on the needs of the story.
Muzhduk was built as a caricature of my younger self, but the clay comes from the interactions he has at Harvard, in Africa and in his Siberian backstory. The boulder-throwing mountain man idea came from an overheard conversation at a café in Prague—that feels like a proper birthplace of all “slightly surrealist” novels—I was working as a summer associate at a French law firm there, shortly after the country split. I’d spoken English to minimize hassle with the waiter. A table full of Czechs next to me didn’t realize I was Slovak, and I overheard them making fun of Slovaks as dumb mountain men who grunted and threw boulders at each other.
I absolutely loved the image. When I was younger, I had a bad habit of playing dumb. I was large, drank too much, fought a lot, and had an East European love of the absurd that North Americans sometimes mistook for stupidity. And when I heard that dumb-mountain-man stereotype I wanted to run with it.
I thought it would be fun to bring a mountain man—not my half North Americanized version, but one distilled and fortified in the most remote mountain range in Siberia—to Harvard Law and see what happened. The incongruity of the clash between Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth and Harvard Law School was a natural driver for humor, conflict and critique. And for the sorts of existential angles I wanted to create in the book.
3) I was at AWP and met your press Brooklyn Arts Press. They were really cool and so proud that they published your book. What was the publishing process like and what are the benefits of working with a small press?
Thank goodness for small presses—they do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to trying new things. I’m very grateful to BAP, and proud of them right back. Despite being a very small press, they won the 2016 National Book Award in poetry for Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Being Human. They’re willing to think outside the box, take risks.
The Ugly is a deceptively difficult book. It starts off light and almost cartoonish, with two mountain men throwing boulders at each other. I was very aware that if I wanted to ask for 10 hours of a reader’s time, I needed to keep the book fun. But I also had some complex thematic ideas that I wanted to bounce off each other, and I knew that to make that work I’d have to break some of the rules of fiction. Even though those rules exist for a good reason at the narrative level.
As a small, art-focused press, BAP believed in the value of trying something unusual rather than telling me to make the fiction more normal. Imagine if Kafka had been forced to make his fiction more normal—actually, that played out in his translations. The early English translations, by the Muirs, tried to vary Kafka’s word usage and soften some of the jarring elements to conform to more acceptable norms of fiction, and they’re generally considered to be poor translations that lose a lot of his magic.
Statistically, work that breaks the rules is likely to fail, so the Big 5 won’t take the risk. Small presses will. And that’s where the innovation and art come in.
4) Have you ever eaten butterflies?
I have eaten a lot of strange things that might cause me to lose readers if I admit to them, but not butterflies. The riverboat moth scene in Africa actually did happen, however, and at least a dozen moths flew into my mouth and nose. Does that count?
5) What is the difference between your novel The Ugly and the New Zealand horror film The Ugly?
Your question sent me on a search to watch the film. It was fun, and there were some parallels in the way the film played with time, blurring what’s normally a much more rigid approach to flashbacks.
At its core, though, the film was psychological, with a supernatural twist at the end. In my novel, I very consciously wanted to avoid a psychological reading in favor of something more existential. One of the quotes that I was most proud of was from the former president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Alan Stone, who said the book “Walks the line between the real and the surreal without ever losing [its] way.” Whereas the movie seemed firmly in psychological territory until the twist at the end jumped it into the supernatural, in my novel I didn’t want to fall into one or the other. I want to walk that line.
Kundera wrote that Kafka’s approach to writing was one of “breaking through the plausibility barrier. Not in order to escape the real world (the way the Romantics did) but to apprehend it better.” By doing this, Kafka proved Nietzsche wrong when claimed prose, nonlyrical language, could never touch any deeper metaphysical reality. I do think it’s possible to create an existential sideways shift with straightforward prose. Kafka did it, and I wanted to try as well.
Whereas the movie was driven by its style, music and cinematography, I aimed for stark, simple prose. And while the movie took its name from the main character’s favorite childhood book, The Ugly Duckling, highlighting the psychological focus, I was looking for a more existential reaction against the cheerful force of logic that insists “to be beautiful everything must be intelligible.” I wanted beauty and ugliness, the synthesis of god and billy goat.
In Chronicle of My Life, Stravinsky wrote that music is “powerless to express anything at all: a feeling, an attitude, a psychological state.” The Dionysian is often misunderstood as emotion, but that’s a mistake—it doesn’t have a reason, beyond perhaps a glimpse of the abyss. It’s not psychological, and it’s not about simple passion. I think Trump has shown again that there’s nothing so cheap as passion. If the book were music, I wouldn’t want it whistled on the way out of the concert hall.
6) Your book has been compared to The Confederacy of Dunces? What do you think of the comparisons and were you influenced at all by that novel?
One of the earliest reviews I received said, “A full on satire of contemporary law as mesmerizing and complex as something lost from David Foster Wallace, yet as light in tone as A Confederacy of Dunces.” First I was flattered, thrilled, and then I thought, wait, didn’t both those guys kill themselves?
I read Dunces about a decade before starting The Ugly. I loved it, but I’ve always sought out that genre—it’s probably too small to be called a genre—dark satire presented with a light touch through an outsider protagonist. As an East European, I didn’t start with Ignatius J. Reilly. I started with the good soldier Švejk, then Kaspar Hauser, Don Quixote, Prince Myshkin, Simplicius Simplicissimus, K, Kohlhaas, and Franz Biberkopf (from the movie Berlin Alexanderplatz.)
On the surface, Ignatius J. Reilly and Muzhduk are very different. The former is a hypochondriac, melancholic, a philosopher. The latter is all about action and honor, with introspection disallowed except on a mountain top. But they’re both blunt, large and, to borrow from Walker Percy’s foreword to Dunces, reflect a “violent revolt against the modern age.” Both books are picaresque novels with oversized, fish-out-of-water main characters that break the china in the shop of society’s carefully arranged taboos. And despite both being very different, they become a form of Everyman in the face of the social machine. Both books rely on humor for their oxygen, but using comedy that’s supposed to hurt a bit. And like Toole, I hope I make as much fun of myself as I do of everything else.
I was less influenced by Dunces in the writing of The Ugly than I was buoyed by it as a sign of hope that this sort of literature is possible in North America. A book like Dunces has flaws if judged against the standards of the realist fiction that dominates in English. And The Ugly does too. Nor did I want to go in the direction of Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace, where the story is largely abandoned. I wanted the story to be stronger than the sentences it was made up of, but loosen the constraints a little. And I do find that the response that The Ugly is getting is similar to what Dunces received—people either love it or hate it, with very little middle ground. What stands out to me in reviews of both Dunces and The Ugly are how many people say that it’s something completely different from anything they’d ever read before. I’ve also had readers expect something identical to Dunces and be disappointed—my view is that if it were too similar, then it wouldn’t be like Dunces at all.
7) We both write satire and humor, do you think our job gets easier or harder with Trump being in the news everyday?
Having an insane clown as president of the United States has thrown satire for a loop even while it’s been a gold mine for humor generally. I can’t tell what’s satire in the news anymore, and judging by the email they sent out not long ago that accidentally included a satirical piece, neither can his own administration. So, short term, I think Trump is bad. Wrong. Sad.
Long term, however, I think he’ll be good for the quasi-surrealist stuff. There’s a reason why East Europeans became absurdists. Good, clean democracies have a hard time understanding the absurdist aesthetic, but living under a repressive regime teaches you how to laugh at tragedy and view the absurdity of life through a different lens. You never know what you’ll wake up to—Trump could rip apart families or you could wake up as a cockroach or everyone around you could become a rhinoceros. It’s a fundamentally empathetic approach to the irrationality of trauma, even though it may look heartless on the surface.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. My dad had a brain abscess, and we weren’t sure if he would make it, or what state he’d be in if he did make it. They had to drill through healthy, unscarred brain tissue in order to drain the abscess, so each operation was causing new damage, new holes in his head. My mom was there, holding his hand while he was completely unresponsive, and she was saying, “Just survive. I don’t care if I have stick a garden hose up your ass and use you as a sprinkler, just don’t die.”
The Canadian doctor was a bit shocked. They’re used to the doctors having the gallows humor, not the patients. Yet humor lets us humanize horrible situations. Taking on a slightly absurdist tinge to life allows you to be more critical and more empathetic at the same time. And the age of Trump will require that combination.
8) What are your thoughts on the idea of political correctness and satire. Can the two mix?
The more sacred the cow, the better the hamburger. I think there’s nothing more important to literature, art, science, knowledge, and to a healthy, free society than offending people. All of the ideas we now consider progressive were, at some point, offensive to the church, the state, tradition, your neighbors.
Political correctness is premised on a very regressive notion that some people have a right to be protected from offense as defined by the listener. No matter how well intentioned at first, that sort of special status will always be co-opted by those who already have power. It also assumes that our current values are perfect and no longer need to be challenged—an assumption made by all totalitarian systems: they are total, true, and don’t need any more change. It’s inherently conservative, no matter how much its proponents may claim to be progressive.
Satire, on the other hand, challenges power and codified truths. Throughout the history of civilization, satire has been a tool of the disempowered while censorship has been a tool of the powerful. Trump has twisted this conversation by claiming to be against political correctness, but he embodies the politically correct mindset—he is Prima Donald, Trumplethinkskin.
So no, no matter how much the tribalism of the U.S. political system confuses the underlying forces, I think satire and political correctness are at odds. And I’ll always side with snark over smarm, change over continuity, the challenger over the incumbent. To do that, I have to fight for the right to be rude.
9) Your book was really two novels in one, was The Ugly always structured this way?
If I had a nickel for every agent who told me either I love the book, if you cut the Africa scenes or I love the book, if you cut the Harvard scenes then I’d have $3.35 or so. Enough to buy a coffee anyway.
They wanted two separate books, but that’s a reading that misses the thematic layers of what I was trying to do. The Ugly is about questions, not answers, but its questions are framed through juxtapositions. There’s a recurring theme in the book around the idea that if you want to understand why a wall fell on a man you have to know both what was wrong with the wall and why he sat beside it.
When I was a lawyer, I missed the ineffable elements that might be called the soul. When I married an artist, ran an art gallery and became an art critic, I started to miss the crisp analytical thinking of lawyers. I wanted a book that pushed precision and the soul right up against each other, as close as they could handle. While telling a fun story, of course.
When the Buffalo News reviewed the book, the reviewer, William Morris, wrote that “Harvard and the war-torn world of Mali are in an intimate, though largely unknown, relationship with each other: the law of the chosen needs the chaos of the unchosen to reinvent itself.”
The relationship is clearly there, it’s intimate, but it has to remain “unknown”—naming it would have destroyed the tension. If Kafka had named the crime of which K was accused in The Trial, it would have undone the whole book. It wasn’t until very late drafts that I even identified Muzhduk as the main character in the Africa storyline. I initially didn’t want to reveal that until almost the end.
Nietzsche wrote, in claiming that accurate perception of any object was impossible, that “Between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an aesthetic relation…a freely inventive intermediate sphere and mediating force.”
I do believe it’s possible to create a phenomenological moment by bringing together concepts that are alien to each other. But like your own wonderful story about Christmas at the porn store, they have to connect at the right angle. They can’t be at 90 degrees, unrelated, like Lautréamont’s chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating room table (they have little to say to each other). Nor can they line up too neatly, like Damien Hirst’s placing a cucumber and a jar of Vaseline in someone’s shopping cart (not an art piece, but a story he told me once illustrating how objects talk). They have to hit at an intermediate angle that cracks the great columbarium of concepts that form our modern gods—law, morality, society—and lets in some air.
In order to create those angles, I needed both halves of the book as a form of counterpoint.
10) Last question, if you and I started a law firm what would we call it?
“Infinite Jest.” We might get sued by Wallace’s estate, but we’d be lawyers, so maybe we wouldn’t care. If we lose, maybe we switch to “Fart Grunge and Ugly?”
Christoph Paul is an award-winning humor author. He writes non-fiction, YA, Bizarro, horror, and poetry including: The Passion of the Christoph, Great White House Volume 1 and Volume 2, Slasher Camp for Nerd Dorks, and Horror Film Poems. He is an editor for CLASH Media and CLASH Books and edited the anthologies Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective and This Book Ain’t Nuttin to Fuck With: A Wu-Tang Tribute Anthology. Under the pen name Mandy De Sandra, he writes Bizarro Erotica that has been covered in VICE, Huffington Post, Jezebel, and AV Club. He is represented by Veronica Park at Corvisiero Literary Agency.