It is the promise of the American West and potential for a new career that lures the unnamed British narrator of Roger King’s new autobiographical novel, Love and Fatigue in America, from London, England, to Spokane, Washington. But after collapsing and being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, the narrator and his dog Arthur suddenly find themselves wandering across the country searching for somewhere to settle. His travels take him from Washington, to New Mexico, to San Francisco, and eventually to Western Massachusetts. He endures doctor after ineffective doctor, anonymous motels, and the suspicion of coworkers (men in particular), as he struggles to discover who he is and what he’s to become at the age of 40.
When I first read Love and Fatigue, I was struck by its original blend of literary genres. While reminiscent of Sebald, the book weaves together a number of literary styles and traditions. There is the outsider’s view of American life (Dickens and Fanny Kemble), the American road trip (Kerouac, Steinbeck, and William Least Heat-Moon), and the question of what it means to be male in this culture (Hemingway, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, and Fitzgerald), and the struggle to love and be loved (Updike, Miller, and Roth). But the author has woven all of these fascinations together into a literary work that is entirely unique. It would be easy for a book about illness to lapse into self-pity, but King avoids this trap by giving his narrator a succinct, removed voice (a voice, I must add, that is strikingly different from King’s real personality). It is a fictional device that serves the novel well.
While the author’s novels have received interest from film producers and continued praise from the New York Times, The New Yorker, TLS, O Magazine, The Guardian, and Publisher’s Weekly, and have attracted a loyal audience of readers, they have never found the prestige or popularity in the American literary community that they deserve. In part, this could be a result of King remaining outside of the MFA system, and also a result of a literary style that is more European than American. As King says in his interview, many graduates of MFA programs “come ready-equipped with mentors and referrals to editors”–a luxury he has never had as a self-taught writer. Like the main characters in his novels, King hovers between two worlds–the UK and America without embracing (or being embraced) by either.
You’ll have a rare opportunity to hear King read on Thursday, June 14th at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, New York, and on Saturday, June 23rd at 3:30 p.m. at The Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, New Hampshire. (I’m planning to attend both events and would love to see some Gwarlingo readers there). King will also be appearing on NHPR’s Word of Mouth with Virginia Prescott between 12-1 on Thursday, June 21st, so tune in!
This week I had a chance to have an in-depth conversation with Roger about his his new book, his illness and writing routine, and the state of the novel today.
Your first career was as an economist working in international development. You traveled extensively in Africa, Pakistan, Asia, etc. But somewhere along the line you became frustrated with this work and began writing fiction. After so many years traveling abroad, why did you decide to trade this successful career for fiction writing and filmmaking?
I’d been saying I would be a writer from the age of 9, when I decided that it was my sacred responsibility to describe the real nature of childhood before I was too old to understand it like all the grown-ups. There followed 25 years of sidetrack before my first novel was published. During the time that I was working at universities in Nigeria and England, finishing a PhD in agricultural economics and then traveling around the world for UN agencies, I was scribbling in notebooks in preparation for my real life. But working for the world’s rural poor seemed compellingly important, and exciting, as well as a living. I published my two West African novels with UK publishers – Horizontal Hotel and Written on a Stranger’s Map – before the need to choose between careers became inescapable.
There was really no choice, but I agonized anyway. By this time I had become exhausted by the difficulty of making international aid genuinely effective for the poor. The poor had no political power and other interests shaped the world. We all had a narrative about how we were doing good, but it was not the true narrative. I started writing about this, publishing “The Development Game,” a story set in northwest Pakistan, in Granta – under a pseudonym, so that I could return to my work. The need to pretend I was someone else in order to write was a final straw. I needed to choose, and I chose writing, moving to America to teach it. My next novel, Sea Level, was an exploration of the moral damage of international finance, which I published under my own name.
The deeper stream through this is that I always thought the novel, with it’s ability to show lives in their full emotional and social complexity was the best medium for understanding and illuminating the world. I thought it more important than any non-fiction I could write as an academic, or journalist, or “expert.” It seems an almost old-fashioned view, now the novel has lost its place at the moral center of our culture, but I still believe it. And I still hope to channel my nine year-old self one day, and write a childhood book that puts the grown-ups straight.
The style of your new book is very different from your previous novels, which are more narrative and plot driven. The book contains lists, prose poems, and jumps around in time. Can you talk more about Love and Fatigue‘s experimental style?
I treasure all novelists who dare to extend the range of what can be done successfully in novels. The license becomes broader all the time.
My wretched work method is mainly trial and error, trying to discover the voice, form and content that bears on the particular subject that is on my mind. I took some risks combining lyricism and cooler writing in earlier books, but this new book takes it further. Also I trust more and more that readers will connect disparate episodes in instinctive, creative ways without my leading them laboriously from place to place by the nose. Love and Fatigue expressed that trust. I have been surprised to be continually told that it’s a easy read. I thought I was probably asking a lot of readers
Even with the earlier books that have more conventional plots, I would not say they were plot driven. My plots tend to develop late in the writing process. I don’t have a plan, but explore my subject by trying this and that in writing, then later create a more definite plot as a way of organizing material and drawing the reader through the book. We all enjoy a story, but the story is not the real point. The plot is an offering to the rational brain so that it will let the writing enter somewhere deeper.
Love and Fatigue in America is about an immigrant very like myself making a home in America while suffering from a debilitating illness that affects both mind and body. It covers a decade, dozens of characters, and moves through much of the United States. My general subject was the resonance between our understandings of personal health, and social health – and what makes a healthy life. All this, and I wanted a short book. I was looking for elegant compression. Brevity also suited me because I was ill and writing was tiring.
The short chapters in different forms – story, memoir, essay, verse, lists, permitted a variety of takes on my subject – and the shifting tone also expresses the rollercoaster of a changeable illness that affects perception. The form is part of the content. It took a while to find the structure I wanted for this book, and at one point pinned up a hundred chapter headings on the walls of a studio at the VCCA artist colony and spun around in my chair drafting and ordering them by intuition.
Finally, I wanted the book to be entertaining, even funny. I was offering a book about chronic illness, along with social commentary, and with a subject like that, I owed the reader a good time. The short dissonant sections keep it lively and fend off anything resembling a misery memoir.
You’re a voracious fiction reader, particularly of international authors. How does the literary community differ between the U.S. and Europe? Which authors do you think are under-appreciated here in the U.S.?
When I lived in the UK twenty years ago, I read more American writers than I do now that I live in America, so a measure of perversity may be involved. Or a wish for my reading to always take me into a bigger world. Or could it be that the American novel that has become less interesting?
But the main thing is that literature, like everything else, is becoming more and more international, so it’s natural to be reading mostly foreign books if you want to pick the best from everywhere. And the invigoration in fiction is coming from new places.
Everyone now knows Haruki Murakami – one of the world’s most universally loved novelists. But twenty years ago, when I was first bowled over by him, he was an entirely fresh voice in literature. He offered a take on being human quite different from anyone else’s. I can also vividly remember the grateful quieting of attention I experienced when I first started reading Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and realized it was rich and true, and unlike anything I’d ever read before.
There are other European writers far from new, who I still find fresh. Two French women for example, Annie Ernoux and Marguerite Duras. Duras’ books still takes my breath away with sentences that – even in translation – are a delight beyond all reason. The list is long and I have not even touched on Latin American literature. I read British writers a lot, but my taste for them may be adulterated by nostalgia
I enjoy and admire a lot of American writers, so why do I rarely feel that special thrill of new vision, and when I do it’s often writing from immigrant writers? My favorite living American writer is probably James Salter, who’s in his eighties.
The world is opening out and American writers still tend to be looking inwards. What it is to be an American, and how hard it is, is still a central subject. Then there is the big book syndrome, with all that dialogue and detail ponderously spelled out – all that showing – while the world has grown far more nimble in its understanding.
At the other end of the scale from the bloated literary heavy hitters, there are the brilliant young writers of irreproachable prose, who have nothing much to say with it. These are writers who have never been in the world, and therefore have little to offer beyond style and fashion. Once American writers were typified by outsiders invading polite society after being knocked about in the big bad world. Now they are usually insiders, hatched in MFA programs. The anointed ones come ready-equipped with mentors and referrals to editors. It’s a ridiculous generalization of course, but I’m straining to work out why I am often disappointed these days.
As an old economist I can’t help seeing the literary industry in America, where writers mainly teach to live, having a lot in common with a Ponzi scheme. Callow writers attend writing programs taught by writers whose experience of life is teaching writing. When the young writers leave, many hope to also find work teaching writing in the ever-expanding empire of writing programs. Like any Ponzi scheme this will become unsustainable when the new investors – writing students – lose hope and stop increasing at which point the ability to reward old investors – all those MFA graduates – with employment will vanish, further discouraging new students – and so on in the classic cycle of collapse. Though much slower.
If I have a personal bias in reading, it is that I am drawn towards economy combined with reach. This requires a language of layered meaning where every word counts. I don’t want to chew my way through plotty tomes and feel I have gained little but a long distraction. I want a book that makes me want to read slowly. I want illumination, wit, seduction, daring, the fruits of a subtle mind, characters that are alive without lengthy construction.
But when you talk of literary communities, I never knew one in England. I finished my first novel before I met another writer, and my world was international economists and immigrant Londoners. America gave me my first experience of the richness of artistic community when I started to visit that brilliant American institution, the artist colony. In the UK, the dominant literary community of my generation was a clique of public school, Oxbridge men: Amis, Barnes, Rushdie, Hitchins, Boyd etc. A talented elite, but still an exclusive class-based elite.
Your new book is called an “autobiographical novel.” Was this your decision or the publisher’s? Can you talk about the complications inherent in publishing such a personal story? (We all remember what happened to James Frey.)
That was my decision. It was also offered to publishers as a memoir in the belief that they would understand this more easily and know what shelf to put it on, but that never felt right to me. My publisher kindly let me choose. There are a number of reasons why I think “novel” is the best descriptor. The first is the general one that memories are in fact re- imaginations, and memoirs can never bear the burden of literal accuracy people want to put upon them. We don’t remember perfectly and we don’t know when we are remembering imperfectly. Added to that I was suffering from ME/CFS which involves brain damage affecting the formation of new memories and recall. More specifically, I deliberately changed some Identifying details to give protection to the people who’s confidences I use in the book. And the narrator’s voice is not quite my natural voice, so that he is also an invention in the novel. The noveI is the baggiest literary form and I felt most comfortable with that freedom.
At the same time the book is faithfully autobiographical – that is, I have tried to truly portray experience, even if it is not possible to offer complete and literal truth. This was important to me because otherwise the cumulative conclusions of the book would have no genuine basis. So, an autobiographical novel, but not the sort where the story is invented.
Your book has had an overwhelmingly positive response in the CFS community. Many have written to you to share their own stories and to let you know how comforting it is to see a CFS sufferer depicted in fiction. Until now, your work has largely found an audience in the literary world. Has this response surprised you? After many years of trying to mask your illness, how does it feel to come out officially as a “sick person”?
It has surprised me. I have received a lot of emails telling me that I have portrayed the writer’s own experience. Very often they express gratitude that there is now an entertaining book that will help others understand what it is like to live with the illness. I have been very touched by these and by the amount of pain and courage the stories represent. CFS, more properly called Myalgic Ecephalopathy (ME disease,) is widespread, very debilitating and frequently misunderstood. Estimates are between one and three million sufferers in the US alone. It’s a complicated illness that involves immune failure and viral brain damage affecting the regulation of autonomic body systems. There’s no cure yet. Sufferers are often not taken seriously because they look OK and usually don’t die – except from suicide. It was at one time insultingly called Yuppie flu, but it affects all sorts of people. They must struggle against both illness and prejudice.
I did not know that my coming out as a sick person – an identity I’ve done my best to avoid – would be so important to others. I tried not to think much about it when writing the book – I’m English and we’re not a confessional breed. But now I’m seeing what it means to others, it means at lot to me, and I’m glad. Activism was not my primary motivation. I wanted to use the perspective of illness as a way into more universal understandings. I was thinking more of a literary audience, and I thought the experimental nature of the book might put off more general readers. I’m delighted to be wrong.
Suffering from CFS is terrible for anyone, but there is something particularly poignant about an active, successful man in his prime suddenly being struck by this illness. Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced as an ill male in this society? What has the experience taught you about the way Americans cope with illness both personally and culturally?
The majority of CFS sufferers are women and in some ways they have been treated worse. Badly informed doctors have been more willing in the past to tell women that it’s all in their heads. The writer and critic Elaine Showalter did a shameful disservice when she included CFS in her book on hysteria, along with alien abduction. Luckily this sort of nonsense is less common now.
It is hard to lose the identity of vigor, a job and worldly success. It’s humbling. Like everyone, I resisted it. I thought I would be the exception and would recover quickly because I was robust and had weathered tropical diseases. But in time you have to come to terms. Resistance to reality takes an energy you don’t have. This is not all bad. Having one’s ego forcibly shrunk, leads you to consider the deeper nature of a good life.
What I have noticed is that men are bad with illness. It scares them and makes them want to blame the sufferer. Of course illness is scary in a country where it can ruin you financially. The official callousness in health care induces its personal counterpart. Men are usually not very good at compassion, which is judged a feminine trait. Illness pushed me more into the company of women. It also led to many confidences from women – someone without energy is a good listener. These confidences were often about their own damage, and gave rise to one of the books unexpected themes – the violence prevalent in private life that derives from a militarized society.
I have come to know the American healthcare system far too well. It does not deal well with this sort of complex illness. Healthcare, driven by insurance and drug companies, likes the brief doctor visit terminated with a prescription. That does not work for a lot of illnesses. And the system is hopelessly bureaucratic, expensive and inefficient, and cruel in the burden of work it puts on sick people. Not to mention it’s heartlessness towards the uninsured poor.
How do you find the energy to continue writing? Do you have a certain routine?
I like to write in the mornings, and with judicial use of coffee, usually have a spell of clear-mindedness. But there are days, sometimes extending into months, where there is no point trying – the effort will only make me sicker. Short chapters are well suited to my short spells of ability. I love going to artist colonies because all my scarce energy can then go into writing. At home the daily business of life does not leave much to spare. Everything has to be carefully managed. If I give a public reading, I may need to rest for days in preparation.
How has CFS changed you these past many years? How does the man who arrived in this country in the early 1990s differ from the man sitting here now?
Oh, so many changes, though unfortunately I still have all the baggage I had when I was healthy. When I moved to the U.S. I thought I could do anything I wanted. I thought I had not been successful and productive enough – though I had written three novels and worked in twenty countries in the previous decade, and was prosperous. I wanted more success, and also expected to settle and have a family. Instead what I got was slowness, aloneness, quiet, pain, and a modest standard of living. Instead of three books a decade, I published only two in two decades, while mostly not working at anything else. Now I try to keep calm and enjoy what I have. This is a timeless spiritual lesson, but with CFS it’s just common sense. While I’ve been ill, I’ve gone from forty to sixty, from a sense of a life still to be made, to a life mostly spent. My one self-indulgent regret is not having children. Otherwise I think I am no less happy than I would have been in health.
For more information about Roger King and his work, please visit his website.