An effort of imagination: An interview with Zachary Lazar

By Engram Wilkinson

I’m waiting along Esplanade Avenue when Zachary Lazar motors up on his scooter. He unfastens his helmet, deploys a kick-stand, and after killing the engine uses the same key to open a compartment under the seat in which he stores the helmet. I’m told to wait before we talk in earnest because he’ll be right back—he just wants to order a yogurt parfait. After I balk at him, he assures me they are really addictive.

The subjects of his latest novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, might compel a reader to imagine Lazar as a novelist who operates a larger or flashier vehicle or as a man who orders much more than a fruit-capped parfait. In trying to conjure in my mind the man or woman I might expect at first sight to deftly write a novel concerned with infamous gangster Meyer Lansky, the mafia, a murdered poet, King David, and forged furniture, I fail. Lazar emerges from the coffee shop, leaning into his steps as he takes them, and we hold a conversation that confirms my new suspicion that I Pity the Poor Immigrant, like its denim-jacketed author, defies straightforward characterization.

Lazar will present his new book at a Happy Hour Salon hosted by Room 220 from 6 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 24, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). The evening will also feature a reading by Daniel Castro.

Room 220: How is I Pity the Poor Immigrant interested in interrogating what “a novel” is? Your book moves within itself between “fiction” and “nonfiction” and deals with historical figures. How does it compel us to rethink what a novel could or should look like?

Zachary Lazar: I want all my novels to help us rethink that, because I think novels can be so many different things. Reading novels, I’m bored when I notice the machinery too much, when I feel that the technique is too familiar and stale. I always try to invent that new way—or new something—but to also make sure my work has narrative drive. There’s a long, fake essay in the book, for instance—the kind you might find in a periodical—that wouldn’t usually have a narrative drive, and it was a fun experiment to turn that form into narrative form. I like to play around with form.

Rm220: That’s all great, but let’s pretend I’m a particular kind of literary critic, someone with a particular understanding of what a novel can or should be, and I say to you, “Zach, this novel has pictures in it. More than that, or in relationship to that, it moves all over its own chronology and is composed of fragments.” There’s also this order imposed from the outside onto the book: it’s a sectioned with obvious divisions. How does one reconcile this larger structure with the micro-level seams we, as readers, see bursting? There’s not much effort to conceal them, but they seem to relate to how the book takes shape. Could you talk about all of this? And the pictures, maybe?

ZL: The pictures are a weird foregrounding of how artificial this book is. I highlight that artifice with real photographs I took. I think all of this comes from a long time ago when I was on a Nabakov kick, and how intrigued I was by the way he creates these fictions, these very convincing fictions, and then pokes holes in them, as if to say “Wait, I’m making this up. I’ve seduced you into dreaming this dream, but this dream is a dream.” I like going back and forth between seduction and shaking the reader out of it, then seducing them again. I like the use of fragments, which give it a mosaic quality and a jaggedness.

An image from I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT: The “battlefield” where, allegedly, David fought Goliath (photo by Zachary Lazar)

Rm220: What do you think are the more seductive parts of this novel, the historical parts that move backwards in time, or the more contemporary parts? Which did you intend to be more seductive to a reader in 2014?

ZL: I learned in writing this novel that my imagination has a sweet spot, which doesn’t extend back past the 1950s. Scenes before that were the hardest to write. I think what accounts for any seductiveness is the deliberate noir quality across the whole book, whether in Israel now or New York City in 1929.

Rm220: One character remarks early in the novel that something is “an effort of imagination.” You’re talking about exerting effort to write scenes before 1950. Was it more difficult to produce certain parts of this book you didn’t feel innately comfortable writing about, or to create a tone in which they might be brought together?

ZL: This is the hardest novel I’ve ever had to write. I write it in pieces, some easier than others, and some were dead in the water. I had to cut away the flabby parts—the parts that were not very lively—see what was left, and go back and make bridges between what survived. I’m always thinking story, story, story, especially with a novel as fragmented as this one, and using romantic relationships, violence, and sex to make connections.

Rm220: You’re probably tired of talking about violence and this novel.

ZL: I’m not usually asked about it because I talk about it voluntarily. Violence has been the subject of my last three novels. It’s not a subject I thought I would write about or specialize in, but you don’t get to choose what you’re good at, and if you’re lucky you’re good at something. I don’t write about violence the way, say, Cormac McCarthy does—with that kind of virtuosic exactitude in his descriptions of it. Instead, I’m into the psychology of violence, rendering it in a way that is visceral. I’m not a violent person, really.

Rm220: Good to know. This talk about violence makes me think of Elizabeth Costello, when Elizabeth realizes some things are so evil they absolutely shouldn’t be written about, that they’re beyond being rendered, and that we have a moral obligation to lock these moments in a cellar door and let them rot. You’re talking about violence, and a novel with photos of a slain gangster shot through the eye. How does this idea about what we are or aren’t obligated—or allowed—to render help us understand the historical players in your novel?

ZL: There’s a certain energy you can capitalize on by romanticizing violence, but I want to de-romanticize it. You can see Bugsy Siegel with a blown-up face, but that doesn’t have much shock value any more. Which, you know—that was a real human face. I think violence is very narrative and dramatic, and as a writer I am deliberately capitalizing on that, which could be morally dubious, but that’s the game: doing it and thinking about it and controlling it somehow and finding something to say.

Rm220: The photographs in this novel might offer an operative logic for thinking about the way acts of violence, romanticized or not, fuel the narrative drive: They either expose the novel as a failed attempt to re-present history or they puncture the narrative to prove they’re worthless without something that can explain or properly frame them. Photographs have frames of their own. With that in mind, how can we think about the relationship between violence and truth, or fiction and non-fiction, in your book?

ZL: The photos, that’s coming out of Sebald. Other people used images before him, but he was king. He would have photographs that were haunting or flat—

Rm220: Like a tennis court in The Emigrants

ZL: Right. Without the text around the tennis court, it would have no resonance at all. Photos as a counterpoint to text can be really interesting, though. Some people in the editorial process to makeI Pity the Poor Immigrantthought the photos were bad, but that makes them especially useful. My writing is unpixelated. It’s supposed to be clear and kind of diamond-edged. I think my photos—

Rm220: The ones of buildings in your novel, of grey buildings …

ZL: I went to great pains and was excited to take them. They’re almost like tombstones, these pictures of Lansky’s apartment building in Tel Aviv. They’re bleak-seeming in the book, but if you saw the building in reality, it’s not bleak at all. The images juxtapose, or create, a sort of portal to the afterlife without human faces.

An image from I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT: Meyer Lansky’s apartment building (photo by Zachary Lazar)

Rm220: You describe your writing in the language of optics—as unpixelated, for instance. Hannah, the American journalist in the book, early on talks about magnifying and diminishing something, which is a paradox. You’re describing the paradox that your narrative leaps and photos enact: they’re counter-positioning your subjects into magnification and diminishment. This reminds me of Joyce’s notion of parallax in Ulysses—you take a bunch of narrators and points of view, put them in an atom smasher and see what happens. I guess the results must be untidy.

ZL: One the threads in this is the story of King David in the Bible, which moves back and forth between mythologizing and diminishing. There are these moments when King David is very mythic and then scenes where he taking a piss in the cave. I think with this book I was using figures that are magnified and diminished and, accordingly, real at the same time.

Rm220: I mentioned Ulysses, but this novel also makes me think about Odysseus. Your characters are taking literal and spiritual journeys throughout the novel, with each realizing in some way that home might not always be where he or she thought it was. Could you talk about ways this novel makes new the idea of a journey?

ZL: At the root of all of this is what to do with Meyer Lansky as a character. I read all I could find about him, and it wasn’t very interesting. What interested me was that he wanted to go back to Israel after Israel kicked him out—he didn’t have a practical reason to go back, but he still wanted to go for something other than practical concerns. He was an immigrant originally from the Russian Empire, what’s now Belarus—a perennially homeless fellow. I feel that way myself. I guess that’s what it means to be alive.

Rm220: Is feeling homeless a prerequisite for being alive, or a condition—a symptom—of having lived?

ZL: What I said is not true, probably, or is just true of people in modern cultures, for whom the old foundations are no longer tenable. For some people they are, I guess, but we all grow up with cultural foundations that aren’t much use later in life, which makes you feel a sense of lack. That’s what’s going on with every major character in my book.

Rm220: The title strikes me as redundant: pitying someone who is already poor who is an immigrant—that comes at you all at once. It made me think of this William Stafford line: “Why tell what hurts?” This is a novel about all kinds of people who do or don’t share circumstances and who have revealed to them all sorts of pitiable, painful things. What resolution could your novel offer Stafford? One character thinks “Kid Bethlehem,” the aforementioned non-fiction essay with narrative drive, is not so much an answer but a space in which a question can be posed. All this question-asking, confiding, undermining in your book—how does that relate to hurt?

ZL: Got your pen out? I just pulled up this Zbigniew Herbert poem that has the line: “Ignorance of the disappeared undermines the reality of the world.” That’s very profound, and suggests, to me, that writing about what hurts means you’re writing to try and resuscitate the urgency of people’s lives who are no longer with us. By doing that, you give value to everyone’s life.

Rm220: You might say narrative drive can have an inherently ethical dimension in that way.

ZL: I think that’s an idealistic thing to say, but I believe it. To make something valuable, though, you have to interrogate the shit out of it. It’s too easy to hold up beautiful language and pat yourself on the back for doing this noble thing. You have to interrogate a story every step of the way. If you do that, there’s a chance you’re doing it right.