Fiction In Conversation
New Routes in Fiction:
David Coventry with Alec Niedenthal
David Coventry’s masterful The Invisible Mile is, on its face, a novel about cycling. It’s about the 1928 Tour de France, when an English-speaking team participated for the first time, a peloton from New Zealand. The book’s unnamed narrator is a cyclist on that team; he makes his way through the grueling, gruesome tour, consuming more than a little drugs to get by. The novel’s timeliness—much of it deals with memories of the First World War—combined with its subject matter to make it a bestseller in Coventry’s country, New Zealand. This summer, Europa Editions published it in the States, where it met with acclaim from the New York Times Book Review, which was how I discovered it.
That’s on its face. But its deeper register takes on large subjects with the drifting but emphatic rhythm of our narrator’s voice—history and trauma, memory and war. Coventry breaks the rules, every one he can find, and learns a higher music. What emerges is a novel in the tradition of Don DeLillo (Libra), Toni Morrison (Beloved) and Thomas Mann (Doctor Faustus), writers who try to think through the way history takes hold of the individual, the almost demonic violence inspired by the place where people and events meet. These are books with a metaphysical heft.
Arguably, our normal American novel is too concerned with the grip of time, the personalized flow of future into past, to see history’s size and feel it clench around the neck. But Coventry’s debut looks closely and intensely at what huge human events do to the mind. It comes away with a reeling beauty, focused as poetry with the high scale of narrative prose.
Alec Niedenthal (Brooklyn Rail): Why the First World War for this book? Why the afterimage of this specific historical event?
Coventry: At the time of writing it—I finished the book three years ago, so it’s quite old to me now—I was working at the New Zealand Film Archive. I was the research manager. I was the gatekeeper for all requests for footage. This is 2012, and at that time we were starting to get a whole lot of queries about World War I. So I was concerned about this, the representation of the war, how are we going to go about reconstructing the narratives around the war, and it kind of bothered me. I wanted to write something about the construction of memory and memorialization. That’s where the book started. While this was going on, I found out about this story and I immediately wanted to write about a character who hadn’t been to the war. It fell into place, this opportunity to write about the subject that was on my mind.
Rail: You say the material is not what’s on your mind right now. Is it a strange experience launching a book in the States and having it be a new object for a new readership?
Coventry: It’s strange wherever it goes. Strange in my hometown—it did quite well here and I got people talking about it all over the country, and it was still strange. And then it was published in the UK, and now the States. But I don’t know how it’s being received. I’ve lost contact with my book in a way.
Rail: It’s outpaced you. And what’s the new book about?
Coventry: It’s about punk rock. I don’t want to talk about it too much. There are some similar things, it meditates on memory quite a lot also, the construction of memory and such forth, and how music is a cultural memory. An enacting of memory, to some degree.
Rail: I wonder if you could talk a little about what interests you in writing about memory: trauma and blocked memory and the spots where personal memory and history link up.
Coventry: I’ve been trying to figure out in my head for a long time, before I started writing, what history means. When we say the word history, what does it mean. It’s so complex: every time I think about it, it’s so crazily complex. And so I write about it to try to understand what this thing is—when we say this is history, or a history, what do we mean? I’ve come across this idea in my head that satisfies me. I tend to think of language as a technology and history as the conversation between old technologies, what was left behind, and what we have now. It’s a constant conversation between these technologies.
In regard to memory: my memory is terrible in regard to trying to simply read a book, because of my chronic fatigue syndrome. I get to the end of a page and I can’t remember what was on the top of it. The past five years, I’ve read maybe ten books. It’s horrible. My illness started at the beginning of 2013.
Rail: It makes sense, with that in mind, that memory comes through as a kind of suffering in the book. We feel your pain. You channel it through the voice. There’s very little nostalgia in this book but there’s much memory, which is interesting because with respect to the narrator, he does this thing toward the end where he acts out his memories, he performs his memories. What do you think the narrator is trying to accomplish there? It’s a strange performance, but it makes sense in the context of the book. How did you come to that? He enacts or pretends to have memories he does not actually have—that are not his but other people’s.
Coventry: This is the mimesis thing cutting through the book. Everyone is doing it. Celia is doing it. The characters replace each other in the race. The stories are all borrowed. It’s a Biblical thing. The myths in the race and the characters in the race function like stories in the Bible, like how stories in the Bible are constantly repeated. You reappropriate them to teach new lessons or create new memories in the culture.
I’m trying to think in terms of mimesis. Everyone is mimicking everyone; everyone is performing things they’ve received. Early on in the book, there’s a line that felt important to write. Percy is imitating someone else, mimicking someone, and the narrator says, “Suddenly he’s taken aback by the need to be another to be himself.” I feel that runs through the whole book. By mimicking other people’s memories, other people’s stories, personally as well as socially, we create a history and memories. So that’s what the narrator is up to, mimicking others. It’s the process we go through to create a sense of ourselves.
But he’s also doing exactly what I was doing as the author. I was borrowing stories, true stories. It’s self-referential I suppose. I guess I’m trying to get people to think about what they’re doing when they’re remembering the First World War. The book is not trying to be a metaphor for the war, but for remembering the war. And that’s what he’s doing, mimicking his brother’s story and trying to create this memory.
Rail: How is that specific to war as an event? Where do the violence and carnage factor in?
Coventry: Good question. You can think of memory as being kind of a violent act in the way that memory isn’t consistent, it’s not a solid thing. Instead, it’s always being interrupted and changed. We have to practice memory. And so what was in our memory gets wiped out by new memories. And that’s kind of a violent act in itself. That’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. Memory as a violent act. It’s in the new book.
Rail: You’re saying that the First World War specifically is a war that changed the way that the nation-state looked, that Europe looked, that the Middle East looked—it changed every pattern of how culture and history are remembered.
Your book is interesting because it’s not a traditionally written book, but I wouldn’t call it experimental. Not that those labels have much weight. But you’re using character in a way that’s askew from the way character is usually used. The same with language, for which you have a musical ear, an ear for sound and rhythm. I wonder about the status of character in your work, because these are historical personages. Ernie Bainbridge was, you said. At the same time, many of these characters feel hollowed out and replaceable, but it feels intentional and it works. Was it intentional, and what was your reasoning?
Coventry: When I’d just found out about this story, I started writing straightaway. I thought I was writing in the voice of Harry Watson. After two or three paragraphs I realized I wasn’t, I couldn’t be. It was this crazy voice, this forceful and rhythmic voice. It can’t be Harry. It has to be a fictional character. And as I found out more about the real characters, specifically Opperman, someone very famous, I froze—I thought I don’t want to deal with people who were actually real. I wanted to make things up. That was difficult, and that affected how much I put into those characters. The most fully realized characters are Celia and the narrator. Yes, the others are fairly hollow, I don’t think it was terribly conscious but because it seemed to work, it wasn’t a problem for me to write it. It wasn’t entirely intentional. It was a consequence of engaging with the historical record.
Rail: On the other hand, writing from ear, in a very acoustical way, was that something you’ve always done? Or was it specific to this voice?
Coventry: There’s a lot of assonance and rhyme and half-rhyme in the book. I think that’s always been in my writing. I mean I’d never published anything before; I hadn’t tried to. I always felt I’d been practicing for writing about the subject I really wanted to write about. It was always there but this was more so. When I showed it to people who’d read things of mine I’d written previously, they said yes, this is what you sound like—you’ve just leaned all the way into it.
A lot of the language is ludicrous. I always thought I was writing a comedy actually, without any jokes. I was laughing a lot when I wrote it. And giggling when I read it back to myself. But I’m not sure whether that’s being picked up by readers.
Rail: I wouldn’t say I found it funny as much as surreal. There’s a surrealism to the characterization, and the way events stack up or are left out—there’s a bit of a slapstick element to it as well. People getting mangled. Which could be construed as funny. I see what you’re saying though.
What was it about this project that opened up your voice and gave you an outlet you hadn’t had before?
Coventry: A few things. Maybe because it was an historical period I don’t really know very much about. A lot of the writing, the journalism about the time, writing about sport—was very moving, very rich and overly expressive. I felt that because that writing was there already, it was okay to just go all out in this romantic style. The key thing about it is that, one of the keys to the book, is that when I sat down to write it—and it came so incredibly easily, the cycling parts—but I was just writing about writing. I just changed the signifiers. It was a self-reflexive state, writing about what I was doing at the moment. And that’s the cadence. Forcing itself back upon itself so it became more rhythmic and more hypnotic. So there was an echo chamber effect. In fact the word you used before, acoustical, is quite good. It was always going to sound like that. It never felt forced to write in that voice.
Rail: There’s a narrative justification—that the narrator is haunted by history and his personal past. So it’s not just written that way because you can write that way.
Coventry: That’s right.
Rail: Is your new novel in the first person too?
Coventry: I started writing it in the third person but slowly it turned back into first person. It’s two narratives that go on top of each other, one in the present tense, another in the past tense. They talk to each other. It’s a different time, different subject matter, different narrator.
One of my favorite comments about The Invisible Mile came from a friend of mine who said the narrator has a disease, it’s called romanticism. He seems to be self-aware that there’s a problem with this romanticism. He seems to understand that what he’s doing is weird, that something isn’t right.
Rail: What is he romanticizing?
Coventry: The race.
Rail: Because he wasn’t in the War and he’s making up through it?
Coventry: I don’t think it’s that easy.
Rail: In your mind are the other men in the race also romanticizing?
Coventry: No, I don’t think they have enough voice to do that. The most vocal writer is Louviere, who is playing with the narrator. He knows there’s a romanticism to the race and that it’s dangerous, but he’s not telling the narrator this outright.
Rail: Having him and Celia in the novel, what did that allow you to do with the narrator? Both of them play with him and force him to question himself and work through certain things. What did having those characters in the book, these sinister guideposts—what did they let you do?
Coventry: They let him have conversations he was never going to have with his riding mates. They enable him to become another person, when he lies about his brother. They enable him to get in trouble. He talks a lot of faux-philosophy. He needs someone to encourage him and to knock him back. Those two play their part. One of the key things about having a fictional narrator among historical figures, is that I can put him anywhere in the race, in the back or at the front having this duel with the leader. He can crash wherever he crashes. Celia and Louviere, they can step outside of history also and contemplate what’s going on.
Rail: You’re not a cyclist yourself. Did you ever feel that you had to force yourself to care that material? It doesn’t seem like you had to force yourself to care about it.
Coventry: I didn’t have to force myself to care, but I did care about whether I got that stuff right. If it wouldn’t have sounded authentic, I wouldn’t have continued to write it.
Rail: One thing I noticed on the level of locution in the book is the word ‘thing’ appears very frequently. What is that? Where does that come from?
Coventry: I know. I’ve always done that. I don’t know where it comes from. Possibly I’m trying to avoid naming things directly. There are other writers that do that. DeLillo uses that word a lot. The Names, for instance. He’s a big influence on me.
Rail: I can tell.
Coventry: It’s a tic I picked up from him possibly. But what’s the effect as a reader? It’s difficult for me as a reader.
Rail: It adds an incantatory quality to the dialogue. It means these characters are all speaking the same language. It’s not only that word but that word helps cement it and drive it home, if you know what I mean.
Coventry: The word ‘this’ has that effect as well. Instead of ‘that.’ All my characters do that. I quite like that. I like characters all sounding the same. It’s neither intentional nor is it a fault. I think. I like it when everyone sounds the same. It’s intriguing to me.
Rail: You like that in DeLillo’s work too.
Coventry: He does that too, doesn’t he.
Rail: They all have a similar cadence. It’s been a while since I’ve read a DeLillo book. Especially in more recent DeLillo, characters have a philosophical sobriety.
Coventry: I’ll tell you one thing, it was quite important at the time. When I came across this voice, I was on holiday in Malaysia. I was on a bus and these three or four Australian girls were talking. And it was so rhythmic. They were talking about nothing really. That call and response rhythm was so fascinating. One of them would say something, another would laugh. Another would give a counter-statement. This back and forth. They all sound the same. They’re all characters in this conversation.
But it was a delight; they loved having this conversation. And I enjoyed listening. That was very much on my mind when I started writing this story, that rhythm of call and response. Another thing is that without the ear, when we read conversation, we pick up the things that we want to hear. We pick up rhythms that come to us. We’re more likely to form relationships and bonds with people who communicate like us. I think that’s part of it, of the whole thing.
Rail: It’s interesting because they’re distinct characters, but… in the MFA classroom, we’re told that every character must have his or her own way of speaking; these are different people, etc. Characters don’t speak the same way. They’re individuals. Not reducible to each other. But you break that rule and by following through with it, and by making that part of the point of the novel, you justify it very well. Was there ever anxiety about breaking that rule or other rules?
Coventry: No not at all. I don’t know what the rules of writing are. If you’re trying to communicate something original and fresh, there are no rules. You learn to write and pick up things and you learn what makes a good sentence and a good paragraph and a good chapter. In order to create the thing you’re trying to produce, I refer to what you have to find as the third thing. You put two things together, and you create a third thing. I’m always looking for two things to put together. I’m seeking this third thing. The sublime, let’s call it that. The only way to create a sense of the sublime is to put two things together which have not been put together before. Then you have the third thing.
I don’t really think about the rules. I’m always looking for new word combinations, new images. But like every other writer, I have a limited skill set and I work within that. You did an MFA didn’t you? At Brown?
Rail: That’s right. It’s a relatively experimental program. A great program, though. I learned a lot. You learn a lot just from the time you spend writing, which, I hadn’t spent that much time writing before.
One last question for the interview. The reason I was taken by the novel and decided to read it and interview you, is how richly you write about landscape. The rhythmic description means a lot to me. It’s interesting to hear you talk about violence and memory. But in a lot of ways you’re memorializing a French landscape that is gone. And you’re doing it lovingly. I wonder about what it was like to write that landscape. There is a real respect for what is. For what’s there.
Coventry: I love landscape, simple as that. I love writing about it. My narrator loves it as well. To tell you the truth, I don’t know much about writing that stuff. It comes very naturally for me, though. I love driving through the countryside and such forth. I’m lucky to live in a house that looks on the Pacific Ocean; I have mountain ranges all around me. It’s amazing. I’m very lucky.
I think when you write about something you love, you don’t really need to think about it. You don’t need to put too much effort into it. I don’t even really doing it terribly much. I’ve never been to France. I looked at pictures and followed roads on Google Earth. I roamed through the countryside that way. That stuff was effortless; I hope it comes through in the writing.
Rail: There’s no distance you feel the writer is taking. Also, how many drafts of this did you produce?
Coventry: Drafts are a funny word. I’m not sure. I remember finishing a first draft in 2013. It was pretty bad but it was a draft. The first draft is—you get to the end point.
Rail: You give yourself a frame.
Coventry: Yes, and I kept rewriting passages until they were all talking to each other. And because I couldn’t read it because of my illness, I gave it to friends and they would report back on how it was going. And finally I gave it to a particular friend and he said, it’s great, just cut 20,000 words. So for weeks I would lie on the couch and my wife would read it aloud to me, and I would say cut that, change the sentence to that. That chapter can go. And we got it down to the length it is now. That was the final draft. The point you realize it’s at its end is when it has its own consciousness, its own kind of mind.