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An Interview with Edward Mc Whinney

JEFF: As their music serenades us, your stories pay simultaneous attention to a character’s interior experience and exterior experience. Ulysses comes to mind, of course, for this kind of attention, but a favorite example of mine in Mc Whinney is the start to “If for Days on End…” a story we published in 2011. It begins with a great storm, then the weather clearing, then we zoom into the mind of the character through whose eyes we’ve unwittingly been watching the storm. Readers should read the whole beginning to get the full effect, but here is the precise move from the exterior landscape of the storm clearing to the interior landscape of the character:

“… The garden exhaled a moist breath onto the air already thick with vapour. Birds had deserted soaked nests and branches to dry feathers on wire and fence while discovering the hopeful tune that announced the coming of Spring. I stood in the bay window of the second floor living room, a moment I could dissolve into, leaving all material concerns. It is still possible to live poetically on this earth, despite the stock brokers, gold mines and oil merchants. It is possible to dream of being rescued by a God, lifted above the bungling of humans to commune with higher spirits, fairies and leprechauns. If for days on end I did not go out at all, living modestly on a diet of potatoes and fish, if for days on end I was not present at all, the uniform undisturbed on the hallstand downstairs, if for days on end—but just then doorbell sounded its shrill challenge through the house. I would have ignored it but its persistence made me go down. There was a travelling salesman with a black suitcase.”

Tell us about this movement or this tension between the internal and external worlds. Do you explore it with a particular aim?

ED: The narrator of these stories is often found wandering about town in a confusion. He is searching for meaning and coherence in an external world he struggles to come to grips with. Mostly, it is an urban landscape full of noise and colour, sound and fury. He is a flaneur in the tradition of Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, every stroll a celebration of his experience of life in all its diversity. He finds beauty and colour but also ambiguity, double standards and absurdity, hence the confusion.

So, yes, I’m conscious of using this narrator in his different guises to explore the conflict between the internal and external worlds. The aim is to make some sense out of life and existence. It’s much easier in a story, though, where the process is spontaneous. Now that it’s more than a story I find myself struggling. I’m too conscious. Too affected.

Sometimes the narrator of these stories wishes he was a painter, other times he admits to being a scribbler, unpublished of course. Any kind of business to do with the external world is problematic for him as is the reason for his paltry little existence. This reticent man is given to bouts of self-pity, a fugitive from failed relationships, proclaiming himself lost in dismay without the composure to make sense of love or politics in the external world. His only hope is withdrawal to the comfort of his rackety little attic, his refuge where amnesia takes hold. Here he spends happy hours lost in the internal world, escaping from the outside. Here he may have composed hundreds of fragmentary efforts mostly in the first person, the ongoing story of an uneasy effort to place himself in the incredible external life. Somehow he ended up here like a six year old in a fairground with a vague notion that the park has a closing time he doesn’t want to know about. The longer it goes on the more he tries to nourish an indifference to the external but he just can’t manage it. There is a life beyond the gates that is both dangerous and exciting.

At one time he was a doorman, at another a civil servant, meek and compliant, burying himself in his duties, sacrificing his artistic ambitions for survival as a happy go lucky if ultimately forlorn individual.

He has a list of books which he houses on a shelf in the internal space. He also has a hunch that his efforts or scribbles as he calls them are of little value to anyone but himself, seeing as everything has been dealt with over and over by the masters such as Dostoyevsky and Camus, in his younger days he has wandered in the guise of Raskolnikov one day, Meursault another. He has seen himself as the K. of Kafka’s novels maturing with the characters of Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett and W.G Sebald. Dare he refer to them as his spiritual brothers? Their futile efforts to reconcile the internal and external worlds is the driving force behind his own private efforts.

His list of favourite books is down to a shelf load, about thirty or forty books, there are novels, stories, poems, non-fiction, diaries, memoirs, all exploring the mystery of our existence, how we play out our part in the drama or even why? He is of the opinion that literature is far grander than politics because the true writer speaks for all people, the great poet transcends borders and race even if ultimately his words fail to be of use as a logarithm to explain our existence. We find ourselves in whirlpools of time grasping at images for brief moments of meaning, moments of peace when we succumb to an amnesiac stupor. Harsh realities are forgotten.

He may sit for five minutes looking at the clouds, at his happiest while reflecting on the mysteries of the universe or scribbling another fragment. He wanders by the river mesmerised by swans. Simple human situations can make his heart bleed. He takes the train down the harbour, the spectacle is breathtaking. He looks into the faces of ordinary people with an unending sense of wonder.

But his tranquility will not last long because the external and internal collide and seem irreconcilable. Nothing is impossible. Every kind of occurrence has already happened. Every kind of human person, mad, bad, sad, the rampant hedonist to the righteous moralist, the stern and the solemn, the giddy and the frivolous, common civility and violent hostility, there’s little sense to it. Here is the six o’clock news. The same atrocities today as fifty years ago, always the same, every bulletin could end with The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats. How can we not be guilt-ridden? And here is a poet dying on the icy ground of a concentration camp having been beaten for stealing crusts from other prisoners when he feared his own meagre victuals were being poisoned by the authorities and from there any other trauma that awaits us, illness, loss and heartbreak and here is a fellow walking along a street with the broadest smile, blowing a toy trumpet with a broken blue stem and cracked yellow base, a toy trumpet he has just found in a bin. The world might end in ten minutes for all he knows and he would be fully incapable of asking himself the kind of questions that torment the attic dweller with his books; Who is the happiest man? Is it the scientist who has stumbled on the enzyme that can eat plastic or the oncologist who has discovered the cure for cancer or is it the idiot with the trumpet? Who is it can reconcile the inner and outer? No-one it seems. A poem informs him that we are mere atoms, specks of stardust going nowhere to the most magnificent soundtrack.

If this was a story instead of an interview, and if I was the narrator of the story, I would head off into the city now and take a glimpse at thousands of other lives, the diversity of everything, clothes, hairstyles, attitudes, rather than getting old and grey here, wrestling as you say with the tension between the external and internal worlds.

Most of the names on my shelf are spirits, waiting for us in a bookshop not far from here where we go, down the steps into a quiet, dark interior. The air is seething with them, the beautiful unaffected whose words thankfully did not disappear. Every page I open pours out a troubled voice. Every line I read is wrestling with the oldest problem of existence, this failure to resolve the internal and external worlds. Here is the quiet, gentle Mexican smoking a Caporal and in his soft voice dealing with this movement of ghosts between the two worlds and here is the enigmatic Swiss genius puffing on a Winchester in the train station cafeteria in St. Gallen, how he works at the question in his microscripts, the polarity between his love of life and colour and dread of Fate and the Gods, while at the same time telling us how he wants to stay with people and disappear among them. And of course the Irishman never stops whispering in my ear, the only answer to the question is there is no answer, can’t go on, must go on, temporary salvation, deluded by fiction in the internal, adrift in the ghetto, anonymous unto invisibility, can’t go on, must go on into oblivion.

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Contrary Editor Jeff McMahon writes about climate change for Forbes. He has written for newspapers and the newfangled and has been a regular contributor, on writers and writing, to PEN International magazine. His commentaries have won a national first-place award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and he was the first writer to win two Golden Quills for commentary from the International Society of Newspaper Editors. He also serves as Contrary‘s commentary editor. He teaches various forms of non-fiction writing at the University of Chicago.