Christopher Merkner

Interviewed by RL Goldberg

In “Cabins,” I’m really interested in the masculinity of your narrator. I like how he has this somewhat Hemingway-identified vision of self-sufficiency—and, perhaps, what Rachel Maddow would call a man-cave—but he is really tender and sensitive. Can you speak to his masculinity? Any masculinity?

For whatever it’s worth, the narrator of “Cabins” is a classic American problem: too little perspective to apprehend the world beyond his present moment, and therefore too exaggerated a view of his current importance. If he is freaking out about his pending child with a woman he fears is going to remain with him in a marriage he can’t for some unspoken reason handle, you wouldn’t necessarily know it—and certainly neither would the people closest to him—because he has found various ways to inflate the consequences of making known this information, and so he withholds, moves lamentably through the logistics of living a day, deludes himself, blames others he simultaneously emulates, struggles to manage his self-pity. I’m not a fan. I think he’s pretty common; I think it’s pretty common to find this in males today, and I’m not a fan.

So you mention the pervasive “classic American problem” of having a fundamentally myopic inability to get outside of the self. I think a lot of articles are being published right now about millennials (at the moment I’m thinking of Joel Stein’s recent Timepiece) and their narcissism. What does this mean for writing or for writers—especially those of us who are part of this demographic?

The most troubling part of that article was Stein’s blithe reporting, I thought. I don’t share his largely unadulterated enthusiasm for this new “pro-business” generation that doesn’t “rebel,” as he puts it. Narcissism is one thing; disinvesting the importance of protest is entirely another. Now would not be a great time for writers and artists to further absolve themselves from social responsibility and engagement.

In “Cabins,” you do a lot with separation: spatial, physical, linguistic. People are always talking over and around each other. People are in each other’s physical spaces or not, welcome or not. What does it mean for your characters to inhabit a world where separation is always present and boundaries are fluid?

One day a few years ago a good friend of mine very coolly, very flatly told me he and his wife were divorcing. And it shocked me a little. I told him I was sorry, and then he just continued on with the details of the divorce—his affair, his wife’s affair, etc.—and though he reported the information with a clinician’s brain, my surprise just continued to deepen. But this wasn’t the biggest deal in the world; it was sad, and it shocked me a little, but the bigger deal came when he made it evident that he’d already told most of our other friends or acquaintances about all this. It became clear that I was, like, the sixteenth or seventeenth person he’d told. The divorce that was most bothering me in this conversation was my own—my own having been divorced from this dude’s personal reality, this person I’d assumed was my good friend, and from the lives of these other sixteen people he’d already told, none of whom mentioned a word of this to me. I’d foolishly assumed I had some sort of personal arrangement with the details of these people’s personal lives. Obviously that wasn’t the case, and I remember thinking, as I was writing this story, just how many lives I find myself managing, and how most of those lives I know nothing at all about. I hate to use the word “fragmentation,” but I am frankly amazed at how contiguous I make lives that are and must in fact always be fundamentally nothing more than fragments to me.

Speaking of fragmentation:

Well, given the choice between your story (this amazing short film from Marit Östberg set against music by The Knife) and mine, I choose yours without qualification. Or maybe this qualification: Yours signals the future of short narrative, and mine is the dirge of a somewhat interesting past. Had I not just read Gary Lutz’s stories in The Divorcer, I might have suggested that my story was at least making an important attempt to lean into a new era of short narrative. But, no, he’s got that already covered, and covered very well. I am very grateful to you for turning me on to Östberg.

Do you, Christopher, have a cabin?

I do, and I don’t go there anymore. Thank God I no longer feel impelled to visit. I went there for this story, but I really never go back there. I am going to a cabin in a story I am right now telling my kids at bedtime; I think its working title is “The Adventure of the Treasure,” but it’s a completely different cabin than the one I used to have—better, inhabited by more interesting people who are interested in the project of creating a more sustainable, just and productive common well-being.

What is your weirdest Baader-Meinhof moment?

I think kids bring Baader-Meinhof into your life like Dolby Surround Sound because they crave repetition—repetition of words, ideas, explanations, places, activities, behaviors. Maybe we all crave repetition, and that’s where the phenomenon comes from. But my favorite, saddest, and weirdest Baader-Meinhof occurs every time one of the kids asks my wife or me to do a voice or caricature they are certain we’ve done before, and we have no memory of having done this voice or this character, but we must still do it, because they’ll insist upon it, or we kind of want to try to do it because we’re up for some fun, and the kids, because either they can’t remember, or they’re un-American in their graciousness, laugh and laugh and absolutely love whatever voice we’ve just invented and insist that we have done it again just like we did the first time, just perfectly right, except, of course, as far as we can recall the voice never previously existed for us. So, I guess it’s sort of either vicarious Baader-Meinhof, or it’s senility.

Do you find that you crave repetition in writing? Or does writing crave its own repetition?

I just read an interview with Lydia Davis where she seemed to posit that repetition was the antithesis of innovation. I think she’s right, for the most part, though Peter Markus is getting a lot attention again for his use of innovative applications of repetition. But this is a personally hard issue for me. I don’t crave repetition as a reader or a writer, at all, nor do I find it terribly interesting as a concept, but I suspect any inclination toward innovation I have in my own writing lashes out in direct rejection of every instinct I have as a person, husband and parent. When I think of innovation and parenting coming together, in almost any concrete way, I just find the result is always needless, reckless, hurtful, and self-indulgent. I’m not really into that. I think that makes me an incredible bore as a person. I worry that’s going to continue to be a real problem for me as a writer. And yet that’s where fiction and life, for me, are clearly living in volatile and I hope productive divorce.

What are you working on now?

There is a collection of stories that is coming out in January 2014, The Rise and Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic. Right now, I am locked into finishing up my first novel, which I’ve based in part on a recent sentimental journey my parents took from their home in rural Illinois to find their grandparents’ houses, parishes, and graves in rural Sweden. It’s a picaresque, because the whole thing just strikes me as a parody of the reasons so many of their relatives had fled their homeland to America originally. I’m calling it Cheap Flights to Gothenburg.

Christopher Merkner’s story “Cabins” appears in Subtropics 16.