“The beauty in this disintegrating landscape” – An interview with Nicholas Mainieri
I met up with Nick Mainieri at a Mid-City coffee shop; we sat in a vaguely lit corner while a robbery of rainclouds gathered outside, discussing the winters of northern Indiana (“painful,” Mainieri reports), the ecological impact of nutria hunting (“The thing about nutria that gets me is that to be a good conservationist, you have to be okay with and welcome the slaughter of a mammalian species”), and biphasic sleep. Transcribed below is our conversation about his debut novel, The Infinite.
RM220: You’ve moved around a lot in your life. When you were moving to New Orleans, did you find the people you met had similar experiences of having moved around as often, or did you find that was uncommon?
Nick Mainieri: People always ask me if I come from a military family when I tell them I’ve moved a lot, and I tell them no, I’m from a baseball family. When I came to New Orleans, I realized this is a place where people come from other places to be here, and I think I identified with a part of that. I will say that coming to New Orleans involved people asking where I’m from, and I have a hard time answering that—I never know what that means. Is it where I was born? My childhood was in one place, my adolescence in another, so I never had an answer to that question.
RM220: I ask because I think that there’s a paradox undergirding your novel, in that your two main characters are both in various ways or postures preoccupied with this tension between a contemporary mobility—having to move or go somewhere because of circumstance, for instance—against this generational understanding that their families, for instance, have been this, or not this, for example. And it leads me to ask what it meant for your characters, to inherit when you’re not asking to?
NM: I don’t think I had made any sort of explicit connection between my own experiences with their experiences, but I’m sure it’s there, or could be. There’s a difference in my mind between moves that are necessary—being in a place because you have to be and being pushed to one that’s unavoidable—and moves that aren’t. There’s more and more people being forced to move. There’s something of the human spirit migrating where it needs to in order to escape something. When I came here, I chose to become conscious of my own arrival and to observe it, to observe how this city is changing, to acknowledge my complicity in this city’s reshaping or gentrification.
RM220: In terms of The Infinite, I think some of my favorite scenes were spatial, ones where the narrator takes a step back to observe a larger view of city life. What about this point of view lends itself to thinking at the macro-level about a place where you maybe lend a part but where that part might sometimes be unwelcome? I’m thinking about places where you’re non-native or where your presence might be in some way negative despite all the positive work you do. How do you think about that as a novelist and observer?
NM: For starters, it takes a while to feel a measure of comfort in terms of writing about New Orleans, or writing something set in New Orleans specifically. Another part is learning to be either unafraid or less afraid of writing about a place where people have firm opinions and understandings, but it might also be understanding that you have to be dumb enough to not worry about it for a little while, to acknowledge that you’re not going to get it right, whatever that is. You can do your best to get it right according to whatever truth you’ve encountered. I’ve said this before, but the truth in New Orleans wears many different hats. It’s all going to be different, and one is no more or less true than the other. I try to write about New Orleans with as much respect and intelligence as I possibly could.
I think all writers do this, you take note of the details you can. New Orleans doesn’t feel true if it doesn’t encompass great many ages and backgrounds and interests. Maybe this is a way of thinking about landscape. I want the setting to encompass the variety of backgrounds and experiences I observe.
RM200: Your characters all, even the minor ones, have encounters with some forms of structural violence that erupt into how they understand the world of your novel. Did you set out to write a novel that had its sight set on what it would look like for these forms of violence to take place—in contemporary Mexico, or environmentally in southeastern Louisiana—in what would otherwise be a more straightforward story? Or did it occur to you in writing and your observations that presenting violence would be essential to writing a story in these landscapes with any ethical accuracy?
NM: I knew I wanted the characters, particularly Luz, to be heroic in some fashion, to have overcome trauma, to have learned to accommodate it, for instance. But I think the novel began as an idea for me, as a response in some kind to various injustices I was perceiving, or violent realities—it didn’t begin as, let me write this love story. It began as: let me write about the toll of these things on young people.
RM220: We’re thinking aloud about what it means to seriously observe a place. I’m pressing on this idea of observation because there’s a great deal of what I might call Catholic theology operating in the novel, in terms of what grace does (or cannot) mean in its relationship to violence, in landscapes throughout the novel that become increasingly grotesque—in ecological or social terms.
NM: Isn’t that hard to explain to people from other places? Sinking places—I don’t know how to write about New Orleans to encompass various possibilities, many negative, that also does justice to the beautiful things, the beauty in this disintegrating landscape. It’s hard to describe to friends elsewhere without making it seem insane.
RM220: The novel is structured such that a large number of minor characters emerge toward the last half, some of which operate as foils. Could you talk more about these characters emerging later in the novel and what role you see them playing?
NM: It’s a convention of the kinds of the novels I like where characters are on journeys that landscapes are peopled by all sorts of characters. It was also important to have those kinds of characters be, well, you call them foils, to have them provide moments of reaction for the main characters. Victor, the graduate student, for instance, allows Jonah to give this irritated, understated reaction to Victor’s pseudo-academic lecture on socio-political factors on modern Mexico. It’s basically a form of regenerative violence, something from Blood Meridian, say, but that’s convenient for something that started developing 160 years ago. But for Jonah and Luz, societal violence is very personal. Anything to discredit or minimize the individual in that way is going to be off-putting.
I think this has a lot to do with Luz’s goals at the end of the novel, of having her voice heard and establishing herself, to establish herself against these broad, economic forces. Voice is another way of thinking about herself, thinking about herself also in relationship to characters who are literally muted. And she’s a bit further down this road than Jonah is, right? He’s on the periphery of his own losses and desires to encounter things up close and personally and contend with them in some fashion. I think he’s starting to realize something about that desire in that moment with this graduate student.
RM220: That points to the fragmentation, or atomization, of this triad of your main characters.
NM: It’s not a story of things coming together. It disintegrates, and the question of how it—or should it—come back together. I think Luz’s future will be filled with many more characters, whereas Jonah will try to anchor his own life in some way. It felt right to me that the chapters become shorter and quicker as the novel races to its completion.
RM220: It’s as if the disintegration of these relationships necessitated these characters to participate in a surrounding landscape they’d previously, and merely, observed, which requires interacting with characters perhaps once regarded as simple features.
NM: Yes, it’s the inverse of them being the center of their own narratives.
RM220: Flannery O’Connor once wrote that, “You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.” Jonah does begin to see, over the course of the novel, that his relationship can’t continue in the way he once imagined or hoped. A reader might see Jonah’s acceptance of this at the end of his journey.
NM: Yes. As clarifying, when he’s waiting to cross back into America.
RM200: This points at how it would be less easily done than others, this interstitial difficulty that nonetheless guaranteed another side. For Luz, resistance or pushing becomes less about overcoming specific obstacles and more about recognizing a host of unfreedoms first. These are divergent endings for these characters who seemed aligned at the beginning of your novel. Could you talk more about how you approached writing the end of the novel with these two newly different characters?
NM: It required thinking about them not ending up together. Having different endings is to me an expected thing about the book. The fact is they’re 17 when they meet, and all the terrible things they experience aside, they were going to have a hard enough time sticking together. So the question is: how do they not end up together in a way that also is redemptive for each individually? They aspire to different things by the end of the novel, but not totally different—they want to make their own meaning. They learned about some kind of meaninglessness over the course of the novel, and ask how do I establish meaning now?
Their endings were informed by, and built by, experience to that point, to that exact point. You don’t re-establish; you take what you have, even if it’s meaninglessness, and you form something new.
RM220: The structure of the novel reinforces this. Chapters with sections that, to the final pages of the novel, don’t allow the book to privilege any one character over the ending. The epilogue drilled down on an important “argument” of the novel and enforced that these problems are ongoing, that your ethics of observation don’t stop in any convenient or comfortable way.
NM: I’m always hesitant to talk about the “arguments” of any novel, much less my own, because it should exist between the page and the reader. The novel provides something to the reader, and the reader provides something back, so I don’t want to say too much about what a novel should “say,” but the epilogue felt necessary in terms of hammering down any underlying purpose or at least opening that door for a reader to think more about this, to think what it could mean, what it has meant for the novel without stating it outright. Fiction tends to stop working when you force a lesson. Hawthorne in the introduction to House of Seven Gables said to thrust a moral into a work of fiction is to impale a butterfly with an iron post—it makes rigid while likewise depriving it of life.
I agree with this, and I think fiction works when I’m reacting as a writer to the world around me, and then I want to tell a good story. Also the story didn’t feel complete with this epilogue, to not speak to the notion of the journey itself of what brought Luz to New Orleans, to not speak to the economic and sociopolitical forces that make this kind of story possible.
Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel, The Infinite, is published by Harper Perennial. Born in Miami, Florida, in 1983, Nicholas has also lived in Colorado and Indiana. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he earned his MFA from the University of New Orleans. His short stories have appeared in the Southern Review, the Southern Humanities Review, and Salamander, among other literary magazines. He currently teaches writing and literature at Nicholls State University, located in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. He resides in New Orleans with his wife and son.
Engram Wilkinson studied comparative literature at Tulane University. He co-directs Room220, and his work has appeared in Wag’s Revue, Anomalous, and Cobalt Review.