Literary Exorcisms


by Erik Hoel

On finishing my novel The Revelations

At first I wanted to write only at night. The great romantic writers I admired wrote mostly in the witching hours. Can you imagine Kafka lugging his laptop to Starbucks at seven in the morning? This idiosyncrasy was broken only at the end, maybe the final 20% sprint of the book. The hardest part. I’d cook myself eggs and glare with bleary vision out at my bird feeder, which was against apartment rules and had also made my balcony a cacophony coated with bird shit. Beyond it loomed the equally white dome of the Wisconsin capitol building.

On the large sliding glass door that took up most of my graduate school apartment I wrote the title of the novel I was working on in red marker and huge letters that spanned the door. I looked at it every night, and woke up to it every morning. That final 20% sprint was late 2015, and the novel’s first draft was mostly finished by early 2016. I was 28. At the time, the title of The Revelations (out now) was The Apperception of Monsters, a dreadful name I’m still fond of.

During those early years I worried about the lack of planning in my writing. In chaotic systems an immeasurable difference in an initial condition can lead to drastically different outcomes. I began to fear this idea, because every time I sat down to write the result seemed so unbearably contingent: a scene because I had a random thought, an idea for a character, even the next line—couldn’t it have been anything? How can art be arbitrary?

Until one day I wrote a paragraph. And it looked familiar. So I checked my collected notes, some of which went untouched and unreviewed for years. I scrolled down and there it was—the exact twin of the paragraph I had just written, but from three years prior. It was word for word identical.

This cured me of any existential concerns. The final product would be the final product no matter what. My brain could produce nothing else.

Fiddling with nothingness

Why do writers set artificial constraints for themselves? In The Revelations, each chapter is a subsequent day, and takes place over 32 days. And each chapter begins with the protagonist, Kierk, waking up, and starts with the same three words: Kierk wakes up.

Oh, I can give the standard spiel as to why I did this. The Revelations is about a group of young neuroscientists who go to New York attempting to unravel the scientific mystery of consciousness. While there, one dies under mysterious circumstances, and the others form an amateur investigation into the death. Eventually the mystery of the murder entwines with the mystery of consciousness itself.

So of course tagging along tightly to the protagonist, putting you in the rhythm of his days, felt natural. One review of the book compared this daily structure to how “Epic poems had rhyme and meter to allow readers to remember them easier, acting as a sort of verbal checksum so the individual could be helped along in memorization.” That’s probably more clever than I deserve.

If I’m honest the motivation for such constraints is the blank page. A thing frightening in its infinity, its radical possibility. For all writers. Writing on the truly blank page is moving about in a space in which there is no up or down. In a few minutes you’ve lost your sense of direction. In fact, you’re not even sure if you’re moving at all, because motion is relative, and there’s nothing for you to be relative to.

Adding constraints allows you to partition up the blank page. “I’ll begin each day with the same three words and every chapter is a subsequent day.” It’s a magic trick, because now, before a single word has been typed, the page isn’t really blank anymore. It’s a heavily-folded topography with up and down.

In this writers are much like mathematicians. All mathematics is based on something called set theory. Set theory, true to its name, is based on sets of things. Sets are defined by the act of partitioning, or grouping. You group with {}. The set of fictional scholars in The Revelations is {Kierk, Carmen, Alex, Atif, Jessica, Leon, Mike, Greg}. Its cardinality is eight, which then goes down to seven.

Interesting, math itself starts out without any numbers at all. There’s only the axioms of set theory, which merely specify definitions of how sets works. From these axioms it derives everything else, including numbers themselves. But how do you go from just definitions about how to abstractly partition up things to the number line?

Well, there is one set that exists by definition, called the null set. Nothingness. It’s written like this: ø. Otherwise known as the empty set. Nothingness requires no justification. That’s why people ask “Why there is something rather than nothing?”

But the weird thing that there is also a set that itself contains the null set: {ø}. How? Well, we just made it. We’re observers, who can partition whatever we want. When I say {ø} we’re no longer talking about the null set, we’re talking about the set that contains the null set. It’s the set that contains nothingness. And now we have a difference. There’s ø, and there’s {ø}. Call ø = 0, and {ø} = 1, and suddenly you have binary. From binary you can make the set 2 = {ø, {ø}}, and 3 = {ø, {ø}, {ø, {ø}}}, and pretty soon you have defined the entire number line.

From nothing, everything. Partitioning up nothingness is always the first necessary act of creation. It’s what Brahma starts with, it’s what a mathematician starts with, and it’s what a novelist starts with.

If there’s a reason why this world exists at all it’s probably because nothingness is unstable. The moment there’s ø suddenly up pops the possibility of {ø}, and then it’s off to the races.

All creation is necessitated constraint. Existence is a tautology.

Fiction about science that’s not science fiction

Herman Melville tells us that:

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

I feel, deeply, this is true. Even if you don’t pull it off, choose something mighty so that at least you fail on the slopes of a great mountain.

All to say that I wanted The Revelations to be a novel “about” the scientists in the same way Moby-Dick is “about” whaling. This comparison is unfair to Melville, of course. But the technique is the same: a text constructed from the top-down, thematically, wherein everything has a meaning and can be (if one wishes) unpacked. The trick is making sure the unpacking is totally optional. Some of my favorite reviews are by readers totally uninterested in unpacking the novel, like this one from Goodreads:

Ok, so I am not a neuroscientist, or a philosopher. Or Educated. .. there was a lot to this book that went WAY over my head. But – no matter! I very much enjoyed Hoel’s debut novel! It was Fantastic, I could hardly put it down for long.

There! That’s want I want. You can unpack 0%, 20%, or 100%, but all reading experiences (if I’ve done my job successfully) should be at least within the ballpark of equivalency.

But just the fact that so much unpacking is available does make me a heavy-handed writer. Good. I like heavy-handed writers. Henry James is a subtle writer. Herman Melville, not so much. Sure, it’s fun to read Henry James’s quiet gestures, but what I really want is Melville’s fat hand to slap me across the face as he bellows “THE WHALE IS MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING!”

Consider Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?,” which is about a man given the opportunity to mark out his new plot of land by the distance he is able to run in a single day. He dies from the effort of trying to complete his ambitious route, and the story ends with “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

It’s hard to think of a single contemporary writer who would throw away subtlety like that. It’s dangerous to be heavy-handed, since most contemporary novels are born in the creches of the MFA. In a writer’s workshop your main job is avoiding criticism, not wowing people, since getting criticism makes you feel bad more than compliments make you feel good. And since academization is the defining feature of contemporary American literature, there are few contemporary writers left who are heavy-handed (excluding their politics). Early Zadie Smith is heavy-handed, late Zadie Smith not at all, which is why her early work is so much better. Why’d she switch? To avoid the sort of criticism she got when James Wood called her a “hysterical realist.”

That’s why the remaining heavy-handed writers generally operate outside the traditional MFA structures. A heavy hand is geared toward readers, not other writers (e.g., Donna Tartt ends The Goldfinch with a five page essay about the nature of art).

Here’s the thing about we heavy-handed writers. Sometimes our fat fingers hit the wrong keys. But boy, we sure can play loudly. Making the front row’s hair stand on end is better than a good review by a snob.

On Kierk

“Are you Kierk?” is a question that comes up often in interviews or readers who reach out to me. The almost anagram of “Kierk” to “Erik” is often mentioned. And at this question I am embarrassed. Why? I doubt my book will ever be mentioned as contemporary “auto-fiction.” It has, after all, a plot.

Of course, there’s the nod from Kierk Suren to Søren Kierkegaard. Perhaps I am wary of the transitive property. But yes, many of Kierk’s struggles are my struggles. There are obvious similarities, like attending the same graduate school in Wisconsin. He is also torn between writing and science. In this, his mythological analog is the centaur.

Kierk is the digressive force of the novel. His monomaniacal obsession keeps the book from being just another murder mystery. He can be abrasive, even aggressive, an intellectual gadfly, and his scientific monomania can be looked on with either admiration or pity. Or a mix of both.

But I’ve met people in academia, most of whom have left, who were much closer to Kierk than myself. So despite our surface similarities, I’ve never thought of Kierk as a stand-in for myself. Kierk is not my “Mary Sue”—some imaginary better version of myself. Kierk is a homeless graduate student who has done very little of note, has few friends, and doesn’t collaborate well with others. If you compare us on paper, he has made a hash of it in every way, from the scientific to the literary. And Kierk is obsessed solely with solving the problem of consciousness, far more than I am. So obsessed it prevents him from living a normal life. And the problem of consciousness is referred to at various points in The Revelations as a Venus fly trap, as a dangerous labyrinth, as an intellectual problem with teeth. I don’t want to be Kierk, I want to not be Kierk.

Yet the more I wrote about this homeless graduate student the more he existed to me, a golem I would see around town—that figure from behind, the young man sitting on the steps, is that Kierk? He haunted me like Tyler Durden from Fight Club. There was the night in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was dozing in the water of the bathtub, the lights turned off and in the dark I was drifting away into a languid depression when Kierk suddenly slapped me in the face, me trying to protect myself, naked arms up at his assault amid the splashing of water as he whaled on me and threatened — “You have to get the fuck out of here or goddamnit Erik I swear I’ll set fire to this whole place.” Then he vanished like the Cheshire cat, his smile the last thing to disappear. Followed by an awakening in the bathtub, the water now freezing in the dark. Unsure if it was a dream, a vision, a fantasy?

Anyway, I believed him, and left for New York shortly afterward.

On Carmen

There are two types of engines. The first type are one-cycle engines wherein a piston is pumped solely by single force. The second are two-cycle engines, wherein a piston pumps back and forth by intake and exhaust occurring at the same time. A two-cycle engine is harder to engineer, but they last longer and run smoother. The Revelations is designed to be a two-cycle novel (I make no promises for success, however). Unlike Kierk’s obsession with consciousness, Carmen is set on a different mystery. The ying to Kierk’s yang, she’s compelled to investigate the death of a fellow scientist, a death only she believes suspicious enough to indicate murder. She is the progressive force of the novel, driving it forward, with Kierk digressing it backward. In turn, she pulls him away from dream and into reality. The two mysteries, her’s one of life and death, his one of consciousness, tug on one another and the piston moves.

Unlike Kierk, Carmen is successful in academia. She has that side of me that can get grants and collaborate and, like me, she’s spent time at Columbia University. Her perspective on consciousness is the most spiritual of the novel. For instance, she is willing to put aside her scientific armor and consider privately whether “consciousness is a radio to God.”

The Carmen character came to me fully formed as a young woman saying “I don’t want to have a mind-body problem, I want to solve the mind-body problem.” Her mother pushed her into the world of competitive pageantry and then later, modeling. Carmen long ago rebelled, becoming sick of the world of appearances and leaving to study the world behind appearances: consciousness. It is hinted at that Carmen was born freakish in her looks, a kind of magical realism wherein she is impossibly beautiful, and people often freeze when they see her. Her mythological analog is the medusa.

Carmen is a lonely person because of this, disconnected from her family. She finds it difficult to make friends. She can be cold and dismissive, often sure she knows best. Her overconfidence gets her in trouble multiple times in the novel, where she starts a circumstance thinking she can manipulate it, only to find it going pear-shaped on her quickly, sometimes even putting her life in danger.

I’m aware that, because her explicit beauty is a point of discussion in the novel, Carmen is a high-wire act. Some readers (and possibly some reviewers) will not like an explicitly beautiful young woman popping up in a young man’s book, and all sorts of hypersensitive warning bells begin to go off in their heads. But from that first flash of dialogue Carmen felt very real to me. In general, women do experience the mind-body problem more consequently. For men, it’s intellectual. For women, it’s lived. Even Carmen herself is ironically aware of her own representation of a reified mind-body problem and how she’s living life as a strange kind of Gödelian self-reference loop.

Beauty is fascinating as an intellectual subject—it is the ultimate subjectivity, distancing us from the objective view that really we are all just long fleshy tubes for digestion, gifted with limbs, and with small variations at our openings and endings.

On finishing a book

If you took apart a novelist’s brain it would look geological. Each layer is from a book that lays down sediment. The stacked strata would be clearly delineated, and within, the bones of strange phylogenies, the atavism of early characters. A lot of novelists get stuck in one epoch and write the same book over and over again. They represent failures to evolve. I hope I will never write another book like The Revelations; it would be a disservice to it and a failure on my part.

I lived with these characters for so long — I was sick of them, yes, but now the book is published I am also letting go of my friends. In a very real way, finishing a book is killing your characters. They turn to stone. They become, essentially, flip-book figures — start at the beginning and run them again, they never recover the animus of the blank page.

What is it all for? The reader of course. Not the author. The author is irrelevant.

But if someone hungers for an easy psychological story about this book, if they just can’t stand it just sitting there, irreducible, and they need it simplified into some Freudian melodrama, then I’ll offer up this simplistic morsel: perhaps in hindsight the book was a purging of Kierk from my own personality.

As I said earlier, I don’t want to be Kierk, I want to not be Kierk. From this perspective The Revelations was an extinguishing of a possibility. A literary exorcism.

An old fairy tale: two twins part ways, one is left alive, the other turns to stone.

Hahaha, you! Stuck in pages forever. A fixed statue. I get to smell sweet grass and feel the sun on my face.

But you are immortal.

I am not sure which one of us won.

About the Author

Erik Hoel is an author and researcher. His debut novel THE REVELATIONS (out now from Abrams Books) is a tale of science and murder.

Publication Rights

This essay was first published in The Intrinsic Perspective. Subscribe here. Republished with permission.


The photograph is by the author.

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