INTERVIEW: HAROLD JAFFE
Many of your fictions take the form of pure, or almost pure, dialogue. Why?
In a fundamental way, "unsituated" dialogue probably relates to some schizoid cleft in my consciousness. But it also happens to relate to that culturally-imposed cleft in people's consiousnesses—the ever-widening gulf between their colonized everyday, and their (as-yet) uncolonized dream. Moreover, the unsituated dialogue alludes to and sometimes mocks the influence of electronic media with its emphasis on roboticized talking heads.
Because the technique features people talking about whom the reader usually knows very little, it allows me more leverage to alter, reverse, and morph characterisitics from one speaker to another. That is, I can destabilize the narrative transaction more readily than if I were committed to traditional plot and characterization. And destabilization featuring reversal, ambiguity, and character morphing is one way to interrogate official culture.
Finally, I do it because it appeals to me compositionally; I like the spareness, the open spaces on the page.
What sort of advice do you have for a young writer just beginning to wrestle with writing his or her first rounds of dialogue?
As with music, it helps to have a good ear for the vernacular, tonalities, and rhythms of primary sources. But with all the "information" out there, having a good eye for pertinent secondary sources is also useful. Keep a keen eye open to how other writers render dialogue, and to how actual dialogue is transcribed in newspapers, on TV, on the Net. When you find something, don't trust your memory; cut it out or copy it into a notebook.
Your sometime use of exclusive dialogue, of course, is a small manifestation of a much larger alternative fictional project. What's the appeal for you of such formal and thematic innovation in a larger socio-literary context that tends to belittle it?
The former Soviet Union strongarmed dissenting artists and bulldozed (literally) alternative art exhibitions. The U.S. bulldozes by omission. The dissenting American artist is unpublished (or published with small, poorly distributed presses) and unrepresented. Hence s/he is in effect unseen and unfelt.
If you want something of your work to be felt, educate yourself about contemporary culture, technology and ideology (all of which are largely synonymous). Then find a seam, plant a mine, slip away. The seams I refer to are the rents, or fault lines, in the web of interfacing ideology which prevents us from being ourselves. The mines are counter-ideological and issue from the artist's fundamentally revolutionary imagination, which, like dream, is encroached on, but still pulsing.
My use of unsituated dialogue is a guerrilla tactic; it allows me to turn, torque, slash, burn, exit. And almost no mess.
HAROLD JAFFE is the author of nine books of fiction, including Beasts, Madonna and Other Spectacles, Eros Anti-Eros, Straight Razor, and Othello Blues. He is editor of Fiction International. This interview first appeared in Rebel Yell (1998).