Bookforum talks with Jacob Rubin

The Poser: A Novel BY Jacob Rubin. Viking. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

Writing fiction about an impersonator is like playing Russian roulette with an allegory gun. Those who survive, whose books don’t lapse into neat parables of the process of writing, tend to be brilliant. Examples include George Saunders (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline), Tom McCarthy (Remainder), and Pynchon (the reenactment of Alpdrucken in Gravity’s Rainbow). The latest is Jacob Rubin, with his new novel, The Poser, about the rise and fall of a gifted impressionist. Unlike Saunders and McCarthy, The Poser doesn’t spring from Pynchon’s nylon paisley overcoat. Rubin’s book is less about the enactment of national or literary fictions than of personal and social ones, and the way this relates to a person’s ability to love and be loved. To map Rubin’s lineage, one would have to draw improbable links between the rueful comedy of Sam Lipsyte, the strange, tender inventions of John Crowley, and the off-historical tales of Steven Millhauser. Perhaps the book’s most striking trait is its blending of a steady stream of Goffmanian insight with bold, mordant prose: “Streetwalkers retreated into bundled privacies: upturned collars, hunched shoulders. Night was a brighter, quieter event. In diners people thawed rather than conversed. You’d see couples staring at each other like they’d never met before.” Rubin isn’t afraid of majestic, trippy metaphors à la Denis Johnson. At one point, the narrator describes an early love as “the chandelier in my brain.” I spoke to the author of this wonderful novel in person and by email.

Some of the best writers, including Philip Roth, do famously good impressions. Did you do impressions as a child?

I’ve tried to keep this under wraps so the twenty-nine people who read the book won’t think I’m writing about myself, but I used to do a bunch of characters as a kid. Last year, a VHS tape resurfaced of me in a blazer spryly imitating my uncle and grandfather. More recently, my friend, the writer Alex Taylor, and I sunk several months into a psychedelic imitation of Bill Walton. When we get on the phone, about 35 percent of all talk, regardless of the subject, is still in Walton’s voice.

Impressions were a big part of the popular culture of our youth. Eddie Murphy was basically our John Lennon. A huge part of being a young man in those days was imitating Eddie Murphy, imitating Bill Cosby, imitating a conscientious human being. Do you have any favorite impressionists?

Murphy’s such a world-class impressionist that he barely needs jokes. These days I’m into Simon Helberg’s Nicolas Cage. I think my all-time favorite, though, is Dana Carvey, because his impressions are at once so essentializing and wonderfully abstract. He has a real comic spirit about him, a kind of lightness and joy. His George W. Bush is underrated. He invented, I think, the Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation, which many have built upon, none more manically than Conan O’Brien. Conan’s is even more abstract than Dana’s. It’s a wild, snarling, backward action of the mouth. It’s like, if you took the derivative of the curve of Dana’s Arnold, you would have Conan’s.

Was any of this book based on your experience in Hollywood?

For sure. I think it was also based on my experience being in a band. We had a very modest following and imploded before anything serious could happen (thank God), but it gave me a small taste of being a public person and the kind of posturing that might necessitate. The character of Giovanni, I think, inhabits the neurotic sweet spot of requiring a certain level of attention while being unable to survive it. Perhaps there are many such types in Hollywood.

How does your screenwriting influence your writing? Increasingly, I hear people speak of their total separateness.

I think of them as being totally separate, though they’re probably secretly conjoined somewhere. Screenwriting is regimented and very structural. It’s like running a bus station, managing arrivals and departures. Like, we need the detective to show up on page fifty-nine, so he can OD in front of the ghost-fetus on eighty. Fiction, on the other hand, is a wild maddening saunter.

Can you talk about how you came up with the book’s title? People in our generational cohort, especially skaters, as I recall, used the term poser like a ball-peen hammer.

My mother came up with it! It was originally The Impressionist, but Hari Kunzru wrote a novel of the same title, so I changed mine, respectfully. I like The Poser. It gave the book an edge. I like that there’s maybe a fake-out quality to it, too, for the reasons you describe. Maybe some readers are expecting a mannered comedy about Brooklyn hipsters or white-boy gangsters in the ’90s, and instead they get a weird fable set in nowheresville.

You have been a musician and a comedian. Is this a book about performance more generally, about the difference between performing a public self and the performance of self in everyday life? Or do you reject that dichotomy?

I think performance is expected on stage and also expected in life, but we don’t talk as much about the latter. Or if we do, we call it politeness or etiquette, or just tacitly expect things to be executed a certain way. I love to watch the way people ask for the bill at restaurants, for instance. It’s a whole genre onto itself. People often apologize first or feign spontaneity, as if the question had just occurred to them: “Oh, I’m sorry, could I, uh . . .”

The passage about Giovanni’s psychoanalysis is one of the best on that subject I can think of. Can you talk about how you think analysis relates to performance? You have a unique relationship to that field, right?

My father, grandfather, aunt, and uncle are all psychiatrists. My grandfather, Theodore Isaac Rubin, has written more than thirty books, including bestselling self-help, and was a prominent therapist in his day. He is credited with coining the phrase “comfort food.” Therapy has become its own cliché, of course: the wussy charlatan stealing glances at the clock. But I wanted to show the nobility in it, especially for practitioners of an earlier age, when the enterprise was fresh and bold and bound by strict, almost scientific, principles. David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method captured this, I think: the mindful exemption of an interfering ego, and the flavor of experiment the whole thing had.

Do you miss performing? Do you have any plans to perform in the near future?

I miss it very much. I basically spent eighty years writing this book to somehow use it to launch my fledgling acting career. I would like to perform more. I may yet get back into rapping or stand-up.

The legendary Barry Hannah loved your writing. What kind of teacher was he?

I really loved Barry, and I miss him. My friend Nick Louvel and I are making a documentary about him. I heard some great stories about his hard-drinking days in Tuscaloosa. He famously pulled a gun on a class to teach them about “fear”—unloaded, he always emphasized. Another time he delivered a Keatsian disquisition on Truth and Beauty, which went like this: He flashed a Playboy and said “Beauty,” then a Playgirl and said “Truth.” Then he dismissed the class. I pass along these anecdotes with some reluctance as they aren’t indicative of Barry as I knew him. He had mellowed considerably by then and was sober. He was really just a kind and sweet man.

Many writers today are self-consciously flagging autobiographical detail in their books. Is your novel a conscious departure from that?

I started writing The Poser too long ago for it to consciously depart from any current movement in letters. That said, I’m very much aware that it enters the world in contrast to the wave of rightly celebrated, autobiographical novels, such as those by Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. In many ways, mine is probably a strange first novel for being so fantastical. I look forward to taxing my courage more than my imagination in future ventures.

Your book has a unique relationship with reality. It has a fabulist aspect, but it is so deeply felt, and vivid, that one assumes it’s born of personal experience. Can you describe how you decided on the world you did?

Many of my favorite books pair abstraction of place with intensity of experience. Beckett is perhaps the preeminent example. Like, Molloy. Where is Molloy? What’s happening to him? Who knows, and yet we never doubt that he was there, and that it happened. Still, the whole thing stressed me out quite a bit. I kept trying to figure out where and when the story should be set, a sort of humiliating question to be asking yourself years into writing something. Only as I went along did it occur to me that I could make it up. For one, this solved the practical concern of my not wanting Giovanni to imitate real celebrities of a certain period, a plot turn that would have been nearly unavoidable otherwise. But it also lay into the very ground of the novel the theme of “authenticity.” In part, Giovanni suffers from not feeling like a real person, and those experiences meant to ensure his reality often take him further from the kind of certification he seeks. In this version, the landscape has come down with a similar malady. It is not a real place, but it strains to be, and yet for that reason it feels, I hope, almost real, maybe too real—like an inch away.

To quote the writer and notorious touch footballer Chad Harbach: MFA or NYC?

I think a lot of the Haterade that gets poured on MFA programs should be lower cal (worse joke ever?). The best dig is still Flannery O’Connor’s: I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like, “Workshops will kill the story through sheer competence.” This has largely proven true. You see a lot of craft without urgency. NYC, on the other hand, is famously dense with brilliant people and conversation, but feels much more careerist and status conscious than at least my MFA experience was. I’m reminded of something Barry Hannah said to me. He was talking about how people are always knocking college for not being real life, and then he said, “Well, Jake, real life is even worse: it’s high school.” I think about that all the time. Real life, often, is far more callow and hierarchical than even grad school can be. You get out in the world, and it’s money, power, cool kids, losers, etc.

You wrote a superb piece on the New Yorker website about the instrumentalizing of Buddhism by a growing cadre of bullshitters. It suggested a deep familiarity with meditation. Do you meditate? How does it inform your writing practice?

It would be irresponsible to present myself as anything more than a tourist, but I like to read about it. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a favorite. The testimonies of Zen masters make certain kinds of Western philosophy seem so egoistic, so small. Suzuki isn’t trying to immortalize himself with a tome or aestheticize wisdom; he’s trying to help people. Doing so happens to require radical wisdom so he resorts to it. That’s all. Meditating really does help writing. I think it forces you to confront the deepest reasons you’re doing it. Gary Snyder says he stopped writing poetry for six years when he got serious about Buddhism. His roshi at the time said something like, “It’s okay to write as long as it’s coming out of your true mind.”

Does Buddhism influence your ideas about self and identity? Your writing suggests a belief in an authentic or core self.

I think the book believes in a core self more than I do, though it, too, has some doubts. Giovanni does arrive at a self, but I think it is—or I hope it comes off as—still a little shaky and performative, if more functional than previous attempts.

People will likely compare the book to greats like Steven Millhauser and John Crowley, but its language and metaphors reminds me more of Denis Johnson. Was he an influence?

So it showed! Jesus’ Son was a formative book for me, as it has been, I think, for so many people our age. I’ve memorized chunks of it. I love its naïve poetry. It taught me that if you want to be eloquent you have to be clumsy. It also solves the problem of sentimentality by dramatizing it.

Alexander Benaim is a contributing editor at the New Inquiry and a writer.