Aris Janigian's latest novel--a scathing dispatch of Hollywood and American culture both-- has spent over 5 weeks on the L.A. Times Bestseller list. I recently spoke to Aris by phone about this most enticing and original of projects-one that seemed to stand out from recent efforts by other American novelists and cultural commentators.
CA: There are some obvious/possible sources of inspiration for you in this book, for example Beckett and Nathaniel West. Care to discuss? Other examples?
AJ: Actually, Nat West didn't inspire me in the writing of this book. As for Beckett, I only cribbed from his famous title and the idea of a savior or whatever that never shows up. My literary inspiration was actually the Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard, whose narrators' remorseless tirades against Austrian culture I gobbled up with perverse relish during my thirties. Though you occasionally find Roth and Bellow railing against American culture, to my knowledge, nobody else has turned such thunder on a single city and sustained it over over the length of a book, and so I wanted to give it a try. Outside of literary inspiration, I'll have to confess, my chief inspiration was and always has been boredom. I've never been able to write until I've reached an almost intolerable pitch of boredom and restlessness. The mild and tidy pleasures of the bourgeoisie, to paraphrase De Sade, the dullness of our protests and especially our taboos, the kittenizing of our language and temperaments---I try to acclimate to all of it, until I find myself screaming from boredom and I have to write in an attempt to vanquish that feeling.
CA: Do you distinguish between LA the megalopolis and Hollywood itself?
AJ: Hollywood is not a place; it could physically disappear tomorrow and yet it would survive. Hollywood is a way of seeing, but more importantly, it is a way of being seen, and there is hardly anywhere left on the planet that can escape its ocular gravity. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is just another big city with its own pulse and feel, one that has its share of riches and dreck. However, from my perspective, except for a few ethnic micro communities and geographical pockets, barely worth mentioning, LA and Hollywood have enmeshed to such an extent that the distinction between the two has effectively disappeared.
CA: Lipchitz: who is he meant to represent? The reference to Beckett itself is clear--why did you use it here? Because the protagonist can't get himself to believe that Lipchitz will not show up? He knows in the back of his mind that this is actually the case, no?
AJ: Well, in Beckett's day, cultured people were struggling with the void, the empty space left in the wake of God's death. Anarchism, Nihilism, and even cynicism, Nihilism-light, ruled back then and Becket crafted a work of theatrical genius that probed the consequences of those world views to the core. Nobody cares about any of that now; we've accepted that God is more or less dead, but what is most fascinating is how steadfastly religiosity endures. Ours is not the religion of the church or synagogue or mosque, but rather the religion whose rituals, dogmas, and promises are promulgated by Hollywood. It's the reason Lipchitz ends with a line out of the catholic liturgy, and the taking of holy communion.
CA: Your first two novels were set in Fresno and centered around an Armenian-American family, and your third novel, This Angelic Land, featured an Armenian protagonist who is an exile of the Lebanese civil war and now finds himself living through the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This one is much different, maybe even more "mainstream."
AJ: Actually, I think of Lipchitz as a "transgressive" novel. One reviewer of the book, characterized the narrator as a bigot or racist and could barely believe the things that were coming out his (and by extension "my") mouth. True, Lipchitz insults many politically correct attitudes, particularly those taken for granted in the literary-academic community. As for Armenians, after three books, I finally learned my lesson, which is, nobody cares about them, not even plenty of Armenians. Publishers, agents, and readers: they see an Armenian character or narrator and think "please," and then think, maybe, "genocide," and then, invariably, "a pretty weak one compared to the Jew's version." So, with this book, I thought, go Jewish, which, of course, was perfectly sensible given my narrator is a screen writer born and bred in Los Angeles.
CA: Tell me about these fantastical hanging/underground gardens you describe in your novel?
AJ: Using only a shovel, pick, and wheelbarrow, Baldessare Forestiere spent some 40 years fashioning an underground world that spanned some 40 acres. It is a monumental physical achievement, but, also a spiritual one. The fleshy contours of the walls, the way light swoops in from overhead and subdues the darkness, the private spaces for reflection and prayer, the patiently made planters, the twisting vines and upward lifting arms of the trees....I can only describe what I felt when I first visited there as religious, and I began asking " Why does this matter so much to me? What is the essence of 'home,' and 'hearth? '" This was actually a question that I'd been pondering for years, since the time I taught at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture).
CA: What is the next project that you are working on?
AJ: My plan is to write a triptych whose titles start with "Waiting for..." The second one, that I'm working on now, has a professor at a prestigious university waiting at Shutters at the Beach in Santa Monica for a former student of his, Sophia, that he hopes to seduce. It is about political correctness, sexuality, and the academy.
Thank you Aris, for this original and thought-provoking look at one piece of the American cultural puzzle.
Aris Janigian is author of three previous novels, Bloodvine, Riverbig, and This Angelic Land. He is also co-author along with April Greiman of Something from Nothing, a book on the philosophy of graphic design. A Ph.D. in psychology, from 1993 to 2005 he was senior professor of Humanities at Southern California Institute of Architecture. He has published in genres as diverse as poetry, social psychology, and design criticism. He was a contributing writer to West, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, a finalist for the William Saroyan Fiction Prize, and the recipient of the Anahid Literary Award from Columbia University.