In Eric Lundgren‘s thrilling literary debut, a man searches for his wife through spaces built to hide their architect’s own heartbreak. What lies behind The Facades? An author fond of critics, strings, and Wittgenstein.
Zola: From epigraph to ending, your novel’s rife with allusions to Wittgenstein. What drew you to the Austrian-British philosopher, and what role did you want him to play in the story?
Eric Lundgren: Well, the idea of a detective who misread Wittgenstein was funny to me, probably because of Philosophical Investigations. I do see him as a detective of everyday language and thought, and his work can be eccentric in the same way Columbo is. The effect of Wittgenstein, at least on me, is that even your most basic assumptions about everyday words and concepts become destabilized. He has this way of harassing language. Because this novel takes place in the invented city of Trude, which is to some extent its own alternate reality, I was very aware that I was making a world out of words. And in a playful sense, there are a lot of “language games” in the novel, such as Scrabble and the acrostics that crop up in Trude’s newspaper. So I’m also indebted to another philosopher influenced by Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin, who talked about the idea of performative utterances—language that changes the reality it describes. When I first started the book I was thinking about performative language and possible-worlds theory and stuff like that quite a bit. Mostly it helped me to feel that what I was trying to do wasn’t totally bizarre.
Zola: Klaus Bernhard, the mysterious architect at the center of The Facades, is a bit of a misanthrope: for him, “the ideal building […] is always an empty one” (91). What would you say to those who claim literary fiction is as alienating as a Bernhard building, literary writers as elitist as Bernhard himself?
EL: Yes, that is definitely a fear I have. Unlike Bernhard, I would like people to visit my buildings, so to speak—I tried to write a reasonably fun and accessible book. I’m always thinking of a reader when I write, and I want people to enjoy themselves while they’re reading my stuff. It strikes me as perverse not to actively want this. On the other hand, I have no idea what a generic person likes, I only know what I like myself, and I’m the one who has to stay engaged enough to finish the book in the first place. What interests and motivates me are singular, idiosyncratic projects. This novel has elements of both crime fiction and SF, though it obviously refers to a lot of stuff from the canonical, high-literary European tradition as well. The architect Bernhard has these tensions in him. To me, he’s a tragicomic figure, an uncompromising and forbiddingly serious artist on the one hand, but on the other, simply a misplaced person who does not exactly know how to relate to other people. People treat him as something of a freak and his buildings are tourist attractions, curiosities. He has constructed these elaborate edifices to conceal a wound.
Zola: In a recent Q&A with Zola Books, Kathryn Davis said, “this structural form—an initial mystery that governs the reader’s sense of how to read the book—is by far my favorite.” Given that your novel seems to adopt that very structure, would you agree with your former Wash U professor?
EL: I agree with a lot of what Kathryn says about fiction. Reading her work and learning from her as a student was a transformative process for me. When I met Kathryn I was writing pretty arid stories about the dissolution of male egos. And this story, it’s also to some extent about the dissolution of Sven Norberg’s ego, but it also has this kind of weird oneiric background of Bernhard’s architecture, of Trude, which allowed me to write that story but also shift the focus away from the dissolving-ego element. One thing Kathryn showed me is that a comic everyday realism can coexist with strange and visionary qualities, and that this friction can actually produce a lot of torque, because the reader is off-balance, she is attuned, she is not bored. I share Kathryn’s love for the book that can’t quite be pinned down, the shape-shifter, and of course her new book Duplex is a perfect example of this kind of fiction.
Zola: Patients at Bernhard’s Traumhaus are treated according to the quality of their memoir-writing. One of them, Vollstrom, complains that “when the work is going badly this does not seem like an assisted-living facility at all, more like thwarted-living, hindered-living,” and that “death by criticism is slow and painful” (190). Is this veteran writer mouthing the anxieties of a certain young novelist vis-a-vis upcoming criticism of his debut? What is your relationship to critics?
EL: A few years ago a literary scholar named Mark McGurl wrote a book called The Program Era, which is about the relation between recent U.S. fiction and the MFA workshop. It’s a sort of materialist study that looks into contemporary fiction for traces of its production method. I thought it was a really smart book. And the Traumhaus, among other things, is a reflection of the university where the novel was produced, at least initially—a competitive environment that was largely insulated from the world around it and had both Gothic and bucolic elements. There’s certainly anxiety involved there. And I realize that a critic comes to a rather bad end in this novel. But I read criticism, and there are some critics I would consider among my favorite writers. Like The Genesis of Secrecy by Frank Kermode, the essays of Walter Benjamin and Cynthia Ozick, James Wood’s The Broken Estate—these are works I return to again and again. I have enormous respect for what a good critic does, the relative selflessness of what he does, and I write with the hope of being thoughtfully read and written about. I may actually be a failed critic.
Zola: If architecture is a big player in your novel, so is music—it all starts with a mezzo‘s disappearance, after all. When it comes to your writing, which of the two are you most driven by: image or sound (a picture in your head you want to recreate, or a cadence you want to nail down)?
EL: I was a serious cellist as a kid, and of course the discipline of classical music is one of intense repetition—sometimes just a few bars, a particular passage, again and again. That early experience probably still governs how I relate to sentences. The reason I made Sven Norberg’s wife Molly an opera singer, initially, was that I still sometimes feel the loss of my imagined musical career, a future as a professional cellist playing at the symphony every night. My early romantic feelings were forged in youth orchestra pits and practice rooms. I had countless crushes on nerdy girls who played violin. The first girl I really fell in love with was a violist. There’s something very romantic about it. And certain experiences I had playing music in a group, those may have been the most aesthetically satisfying experiences of my life. It may be that these sentences I labor over now are my futile attempts to reclaim those early moments of musical bliss.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.