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Fiona Maazel’s Got the Human Condition — and Our Condolences

SS: Your protagonist, Lucy Clark, is a pill-spilling train wreck who spends much of the novel wreaking specific havoc on the lives of her friends and loved ones. Hers is such a compelling, richly nuanced voice that I am led to wonder if there were any such individuals you knew who informed Lucy’s evolution. Without spilling too many beans here: were there?

FM: Ah, you are fishing. But no, Lucy’s not modeled on anyone. She’s a drug addict and with this comes certain qualities that are, I think, common to many drug addicts. She’s also rich and spoiled and extraordinarily unhappy. So her voice is reactive to the circumstances in which she’s grown up, to some qualities that often typify a drug addict — the ego and self-disgust, etc. — and also to the madness that attaches itself to her as the novel proceeds. She’s hapless and floundering, but also complicit in her misfortune, and just smart enough to know it. So despite the bromide of her life’s pursuit — she’s a drug addict, and this is banal — she’s still pretty complicated; and since the novel relies heavily on voice — not just hers — this is where complexity has the best chance of making itself felt and known.

SS: Likewise Izzy, the crack-addled matriarch, a sign of what Lucy might become if she doesn’t get her act together and fast. The mother-daughter relationship is spectacularly dysfunctional, yet the strongest emotion they share for each other is exasperation, rather than loathing; and the one area where they ultimately find common ground is their disease — that is, addiction. Would you agree that their relationship has a happy ending, however hard-fought-for it is? It’s such a powerful scene, their reconciliation, sad and yet strangely uplifting: in spite of their sufferings, neither is redeemed, and yet neither is irredeemable.

FM: It’s not a happy ending for them, but it’s as good as it’s going to get. Finally, addiction is a disease, not a referendum on the person who has it. Izzy actually has a good heart and I think that’s what you are picking up on during their last two scenes together — the good part of her rearing to say goodbye. Not everyone makes it, but even so, it’s solacing to experience the best in someone before it’s too late, albeit at the last minute. Izzy knows she’s wrecked her life, and made a stab at wrecking Lucy’s. But she knows it and regrets it and maybe hopes that in her failure will be a useful legacy or at the very least, a cautionary tale. And Lucy is just heart enough to appreciate this.

SS: And let’s not forget Hannah, the resident skeptic, who clearly despises her family for its carnage and is looking to find something to fill the authority gap: if not in fascistic Christian peer camps, then in the cold science of infectious pathology. Hindsight being 20/20, you can see in a person’s history, fictional and otherwise, just what kind of character they have grown, or are growing, into. Had you not chosen to end your story where you did, where do you think Hannah’s path would end? Or are you content to let us figure that one out for ourselves?

FM: Hannah’s got a tough road ahead of her, I’m sure. But I also suspect that, as per the apparatus of reincarnation, each generation in this family will make out just a little better than the last. So Hannah will likely improve on Lucy’s fate, though perhaps not by much. But since I didn’t write that part, my guess is as good as yours.

SS: If a writer chooses not to make a protagonist likeable, then s/he must bear the burden of making the character compelling — that is, relatable — in spite of her/his failings. In Lucy’s case, we might not like the things she does, but we can still empathize with her as a person. (To what degree is the reader’s decision.) Should you find yourself before a classroom teaching your students the art of conveying the humanity of disreputable characters, what advice would you offer them?

: I’m always resentful of people who offer as criticism of a work that they “didn’t like” the characters. I think this is silly, and I don’t know any author worth his salt who attempts to make a character “likeable.” Where’s the verisimilitude in that? Most people, when you look at them long and hard enough, are not explicitly “likeable.” They are struggling and traumatized and confused and hurt. I have only to look at myself to know that my desires are petty, my needs are selfish, and my intentions compromised. So what’s interesting in all this is not that people are good but that they try. And try really hard because there’s so much to overcome. When I teach, I encourage my students to find the struggle in their characters, the tension and conflict — people trying to surmount themselves in one way or another. There’s nobility and pathos in this, but nothing recherché. Just think of your archetypical “bad guy,” Raskolnikov, and the case is made.

SS: It is an irony that the strongest point in a story from which one might draw a useful moral is a point of ambiguity; and the ending of Last Last Chance is as ambiguous as endings get: Lucy pulls herself together just as everyone else is falling apart. Hearkening somewhat to the spirit of the second question, were you tempted to end your story on a more pat note? Or did you feel strongly that things should — would — end as they have?

FM: The latter. I am, in general, suspicious of resolution and rarely find in its craft anything that feels right to me. I really believe in ambiguity as an organizing principle, which sounds counterintuitive, but only in the way chaos theory sounds counterintuitive. Things rarely end neatly, if they end at all, and certainly not under conditions such as Lucy’s, when the plague is still out there, and the extent of its virulence and contagion are unknown. So in terms of plot, everything’s up in the air, which seemed like a useful way to foil Lucy’s emotional progress. Because it hardly matters that she might not be able to act on what she’s learned, but that she’s learned at all.

SS: Do you think readers of fiction nowadays are on the whole more open to the narrative possibilities of ambiguity? Or have you received complaints from readers for not having tied all your threads into a nice, neat package?

FM: People have asked me to clarify the ending — to tell them what happens. But what they really want to know is what happens next, which is a different question entirely. Mostly I say I don’t know. And mostly, they are fine with it. If readers are more accepting of ambiguity, it’s not because ambiguity in fiction is anything new. All the not-so-conventional authors have been trucking in ambiguity for years: Gaddis, Pynchon, Bernhard, Hawkes, Sebald, etc. For a lot of these writers, the energy and movement is lateral, which means you rarely get the peaks and troughs that lend themselves nicely to resolution, e.g., mounting tension, climax, catharsis, denouement. There’s nothing wrong with this model, it’s just not one I’m all that interested in pursuing, though my novel probably hews closer to it than I would have liked. In any case, I’m guessing most readers still prefer convention to anything else because it’s a little easier and often more rewarding in its ease, at least in the short term.


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