MARCH 14, 2015
EARLY ON in Jacob Rubin’s debut novel, The Poser, a theatrical agent named Maximilian Horatio attempts to woo a potential young client, a flawless mimic named Giovanni Bernini, by treating the boy and his mother to dinner at a touristy New England lobster joint — “The Famous Eatery.” Max is hoping to convince Mama to let him take Giovanni to The City and make him a star. So far, Max’s attempts to dazzle Mama with a stack of references signed by “what we call VIP personalities” are falling flat — mostly because the signatures are an illegible mess. “Keep in mind,” Max protests, “there’s a certain smudge factor here. I’m a traveling man, things get smudged. That’s just the reality.” At last, the food arrives:
“Big names or not, Mr. Horatio, they don’t mean much scribbled on toilet paper.”
“Let’s — let’s,” Max said, pumping his knee. “Let’s just pause here to let the food happen?”
“Before such cuisine, how could we not?”
But Max had missed this riposte, distracted, as he was, by the seafood’s arrival into the realm of his senses. Anyone could see it: how much the impending feast had replaced the tug-of-war with Mama as the true, and only, business of the moment. He sniffed and rubbed his hands and even licked his lips, like a cartoon wolf over a captured infant. Without removing his eyes from the platter, as if the dead, pink creature might still slither away, he cautiously unrolled the Armison’s Famous Eatery bib and tucked it into his collar, the news of hunger everywhere in his face. “Let’s just let the food happen,” he muttered again at the volume of a prayer.
The Poser follows Giovanni’s career from boyish troublemaker to cabaret performer to film star to politician, while exploring the crises that rage inside a man whose compulsion to imitate renders his personal life a mess. “No one’s disguise is perfect,” says Giovanni, explaining his talent to a scoop-hungry journalist. “There is in every person a seam, a thread curling out of them […] When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.”
The Poser is full of hilarious episodes and topical delights, but don’t be fooled: this is a profound meditation on love, ambition, and self-knowledge.
I met Jake while we were both pursuing MFAs at the University of Mississippi, and I was happy to re-connect, to ask him some questions about his first novel, his experience at Ole Miss, and anything else that came to mind.
CLARISSA ROMANO: In an article you wrote for The New Yorker last year, you explore the relationship between mindfulness, meditation, and achievement. Do you meditate? Does it have any impact on your writing practice?
JACOB RUBIN: I try to meditate regularly. Like a lot of things that are helpful, it is hard, I’ve found, to do consistently. I think it helps with writing insofar as it helps clear the mind and increases calm. It also helps you distinguish between positive, productive, creative energy, and compulsive, negative energy, a distinction easy to lose sight of if you are not being mindful. In some ways it makes the whole process a little more complicated, though, as it subjects the practice to an even greater awareness. I think it puts a spotlight on the question of what you’re writing out of. Like, are you writing out of the desire to get these voices out of your head (Nabokov’s version of this is, the novelist writes to be “rid of” the book) or are you writing — at the risk of sounding mystical — so that the universe can express itself?
In your article, you describe the hurdles to enlightenment as a “mountain of fear, self-interest, and inattention.” These seem to be the qualities Giovanni exposes when he performs his imitations. Do you find inspiration in your own fears and attention-issues, Jake?
Interesting. I think I might! Those three kinds of failings were veiled references to the three kleshas (poisons) of aversion, desire, and delusion as enumerated by Buddhist tradition. All three are believed to cloud the mind and lead to “unwholesome” karmic activity — in other words, lead one away from clarity. I do think Giovanni is inspired by people’s weaknesses. Often a person’s shortcomings — or their source of shame — represent, for him, a “thread,” a path to the essence of a person. Later in the novel, he is forced to come to terms with the hostility and fearfulness of this point of view. I think in writing, too, there is an inspiration to be found in people’s faults. Or maybe better put, what we think of as a person’s failing might well make for dramatic or descriptive fodder on the page. Perhaps we can think of faults as “fault lines,” little cracks that lead to great depth. Such things ought to be explored. Good writing, in my experience, is not polite.
Giovanni is a performer. Have you ever done any performing?
I have, in fact. I used to be a rapper, of all things, in the era before YouTube. I was the lead guy in a college band that toured around the East Coast before quietly imploding. I did a stint as a stand-up comedian in a sort of manic and confused period of my life a few years ago. I’ve acted a little. I’m available as an actor if any casting agents reading this are looking for a wry suitor for Girls or drive-by victim in Sons of Anarchy. I do like performing and find myself writing about performance a lot. I think I like the conflict of someone presenting herself in a way that also masks herself. That duality seems central to performance.
The Poser takes place in a parallel universe that we recognize but are told isn’t ours (Fantasma Falls is Los Angeles, The City is Manhattan). Even the time period is slightly out of focus — are we in the ’20s? The ’40s? The ’60s? Still, the book never seems to falter in its own authority about the time and place. Tell me about the creation of this world. Were there certain specific inspirations — music or movies or books — that helped you keep the tone consistent?
This definitely felt like a risk but one that felt aesthetically necessary for reasons I could only really articulate after completing the book. My line on it now is that I wanted the landscape to strain to be real in the way Giovanni himself does. I had the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s in mind for sure, but tried not to feel shackled to any strict fealty when it came to period detail or era-appropriate slang. It certainly caused me some concern as one of the first things you’re always instructed is to know your place, and I was sort of making mine up as I went, and yet a lot of the fiction I love most is set in these redolent nowheres. I’m thinking of works by Kafka and Borges and Beckett. A couple of years ago I read The Facades, by Eric Lundgren, which is an excellent and haunting book set in a surreal Midwestern town called Trude. Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is also set in a fictional country and is another one of my favorites. In the end, I had to go with what felt right. If this sounds like a lot of anxious trial and error, that’s exactly what it was.
Several characters guide Giovanni along his path — his mother, his agent Max, and then the dangerous and powerful Bernard. Bernard shepherds Giovanni into great fame, but under the condition that he leave his identity behind and function under a new, false identity. How much of this story is a conscious allegory about fame and its costs?
I think it definitely became that kind of allegory, though making it one was never a conscious choice. There’s a film I like called Starting Out in the Evening in which Frank Langella plays a neglected writer of literary fiction. It’s based on a book, I think. Anyway, in the movie, Langella’s character, when asked about his approach to writing, says something like, “I just follow my characters around and wait for them to do something interesting.” It was a great relief to hear that said loud (even by a fictional character) as it pretty well described what always felt like my own inadequate “approach” — inadequate for being so errant and inefficient. Writing the book, I followed Giovanni around and, in following him, discovered, as he did, what he would do and whom, given his propensities, he would imitate. On one of these authorial stakeouts, I learned Giovanni was drawn to Bernard. I think this is because Bernard, who’s sort of beyond stoic, offers Giovanni the chance to disappear, to let go of imprisoning sensitivities. Ditto for fame, which, paradoxically, represents for Giovanni the opportunity to vanish. Fame flattens him into an image, and that image replaces him, to his great relief. If it reads like an allegory, perhaps it’s because those drawn to fame are motivated by similar concerns.
We went to graduate school in Oxford, Mississippi, 60 miles from the infamous crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in order to play blues guitar. Does Giovanni sell his soul?
I think he does to a certain extent. He makes a costly trade, but, in his case, I don’t think it’s for fame or success as he already possesses the requisite “skill” to become a celebrity. I think it’s a more insidious exchange that many, under less novelistic circumstances, often choose to make. Like, it’s very painful for Giovanni to be who he is because he is so malleable and sensitive and prey to those around him, so he is often drawn to these people who seem self-sufficient, even cold or unfeeling. I think he trades his humanity — and with it his vulnerability — not necessarily for celebrity or wealth but for a defense against immediate crisis that he mistakes for sanity. We all do this to some extent. It is easy and human, if subtly ruinous, to choose stability over emotional threat. I think Giovanni just happens to pay an even bigger price on a bigger stage.
The book features a large cast of supporting characters, all of them flawed, all of them essential to the story. Every character disappoints Giovanni in some way. Giovanni forgives some characters, but others he turns his back on. Which of the supporting characters do you feel the greatest tenderness for and why?
That’s interesting. I think I’ve had tenderness for different characters at different times. Characters, in my experience, are like moods or musical keys or states of mind you slip in and out of, like what I imagine acting to be. In that way, I think the tenderness you feel for any one varies as you inhabit different characters. So maybe one day you’re in a Max mood or another day a Bernard mood. Or, as often happens, you’re in no mood, but you press on as best you can.
What was your experience in the Ole Miss writing program?
I had a wonderful experience at Ole Miss and benefited greatly from all of my teachers: David Galef, Michael Knight, Brad Watson, Tom Franklin, and Barry Hannah, and from my fellow students. I’m really excited to get to read in Oxford in March with two of our former classmates, M.O. Walsh and Alex Taylor, brilliant writers who both have debut novels coming out. Living in the South for three years was an education onto itself, especially for a native New Yorker. The South has always reminded me of Ireland, where I was lucky to spend some time, too. The respect for the written word seems uniformly held in both places. Students, profs, grocers, mechanics can all turn a phrase and almost everyone is drunk, or the person next to them is. The South is notoriously less health-conscious than much of the rest of the country, and it’s a serious problem, but there are subtle cultural ramifications that are not all bad. If, as Alan Bloom argues, fear of death and the resulting health-consciousness are at the core of the bourgeois worldview, than Mississippi is the least bourgeois state in the union, not just economically, but culturally, even spiritually. I don’t mean at all to sound like I’m glorifying poverty or underestimating the horrendous problem of obesity. But concomitant with the general lack of any “healthy culture” is a very different philosophy of being. What I mean is, down there living is given priority over not dying, if that makes sense. You see it in the literature, too.
We share a teacher, Barry Hannah. What did you learn from Barry?
Barry was one of the most charismatic and big-hearted people I’ve ever met. At the stage of life when I knew him he’d been mellowed and humbled and made semi-clairvoyant by age and illness, and he was very compassionate. Barry liked to say, “I’ll say anything if it’s true,” and that’s always stayed with me, both in life and on the page, that something that seems blue or inappropriate — if true — will resonate because it answers to the highest authority of experience. The willingness to take risk is central to that maxim and characteristic of Barry. I think his life and work are these joyful models of incaution. He lived a life rich with mistake. I only a little bit want to sound like I’m aestheticizing suffering, but Barry sort of demands it. He was a romantic figure of a type harder and harder to find. I doubt he experienced his own life this way, but to me and to others, I think, he was an example of freedom, which you can never get enough of, really, and is very seductive to a young writer. I think it’s the principal reason people get into writing, that desire for flight — from reality, home, themselves — through a process, which, ironically, ends up bringing them back to all of the subjects they hoped to leave behind. Barry is often presented as this punk rocker of writing. But you read about some of the actual punk rockers, like Iggy Pop, and he just comes off as this vain junkie worming around on stage in front of a monsoon of feedback. Barry, of course, met whatever the criteria for being a “badass” are — motorcycle, drinking problem — but he was unusually kind, especially in the later part of his life when I knew him. I think his kindness was his most radical quality.
Any other pieces of writing advice you carry close that you’d be willing to share?
I carry a lot of uniquely helpful writing advice that I refuse to share with anyone. Next question. JK! A lot of the clichés are true, I’ve found. I think you have to embrace the absurd, youth-destroying inefficiency of the process. You have to constantly negotiate the balance between disciplined sitting-at-the-desk and mind-clearing breaks. I think if you fetishize craft your work will show it. Ditto for an overreliance on some vague, wispy sense of inspiration. Overdo the first and you risk contrivance, the second a kind of self-indulgent disrespect of the reader’s time and taste. Exercise is really good. I don’t do it enough. I think rereading is underrated. Reading widely is great, of course, but I’ve always suspected you get further memorizing 20 masterpieces than picking over 5,000 random books, though this probably varies with temperament. I frequently hear the formula that discipline is more important than talent. I think I agree with it, but I would tweak it slightly. I think it isn’t so much discipline as compulsion. Faulkner said the writer must be “demon-driven.” I think you have to feel that compulsion to write, and that is more important than anything else.
In The Poser, Giovanni’s struggle to find his true identity is linked to his compulsion to impersonate others, a compulsion not dissimilar to creating characters and putting them on the page. As an artist, do you identify with Giovanni’s struggle?
Definitely. So many protagonists of classic lit are “artists” or failed artists in the loosest and frequently romantic sense of the word: they have a problem with the world as is; they want more from it or less. Look at Quixote or Emma Bovary. In the case of Giovanni, I do think the parallels are very close. Writing about someone who is so sensitive to other people’s gestures and mannerisms gave me an opportunity to dramatize the worldview of a writer without him having to be one. I think writers are very peculiar people — often detached, excessively observant, lurchingly active, gesture-obsessed. Writers, I think, often shoehorn these traits into their characters because they know those qualities so well. I’m definitely guilty of that here.
Some of the funniest parts of your book focus on eating and the ways in which our appetites can expose identity. How do you see this in relation to “pulling the thread”?
Interesting. I do think hunger is probably inherently funny. Not real hunger, of course, which is nightmarish, but safe hunger, hunger that will be relieved by food is usually good for a laugh. Like, a dog wanting a treat — the silent, prayerful focus — it’s funny and lovable because it’s naked. I think when you have anything before which a person is helpless there’s an opportunity for humor. So go the plots of so many Looney Tunes, right? The big red tongue hanging out of the mouth, the googly eyes. Hunger, like sexual desire, makes people simple, dumb, easily herded. The character Max in the book is appetitive in almost every way, and I think it makes him seem ingenuous ultimately, despite his ambition. He’s trustworthy. When someone doesn’t eat the food you serve, you feel like they’re a narc or something. Who is this guy? Eat the pot roast already. When they sponge up the last of the gravy with a raft of bread, the host thinks, I like her! Bring her around more often.
If you could be anything other than a writer, what would you be?
I would give it all up to be the twelfth man on the Milwaukee Bucks.
Jake Rubin will be reading at Book Soup in Los Angeles on March 31.