Karan Mahajan talks with Adam Ehrlich Sachs

That Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s caustic and absurdist collection Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables, and Problems is being released in time for Father’s Day resembles nothing more than a joke you might find in the collection itself: A well-meaning father (here, the publisher) misinterprets the son’s book (a work of emotional terrorism aimed at both fathers and sons) as an act of love and exalts it within a stifling tradition of filial affection (Father’s Day). Dark hilarity ensues.

Sachs, who is thirty and has written for Hollywood, is a newcomer to fiction, but it’s hard to imagine a more assured debut: Each of its 117 father-and-son parables is saturated with the sort of sadness, cruelty, and humor you might find in Thomas Bernhard, one of Sachs’s confessed European-modernist influences. A representative riverine sentence from a story—about two brothers, one of whom is forced to run his father’s shoe store while the other becomes a physicist—goes like this:

Of course the greatest source of parallel universes, numerically speaking, Leonard reasoned, are fathers who attempt to dictate their sons’ careers, thereby instantly bringing forth the universe in which their sons obey their career choice and the universe in which their sons disobey, as well as the infinite array of universes in which their sons are probabilistically smeared between obeying and disobeying; but fathers are not the only world creators; in fact, any interaction between family members brings forth at least one, and usually more than one, universe, especially an interaction that carries with it a demand; and a corollary he could deduce from this before even removing his forehead from the windowpane was that bigger families, as well as more interactive families, bring forth more universes, and big interactive families who make lots of demands on one another bring forth the most universes, numerically.

This is vintage Sachs: an astute command of pseudo-scientific jargon (Sachs boasts an abandoned Ph.D. in the history of science in his background), the repetitive, almost deranged Bernhardian syntax, and the hiccup of the joke at the end (“numerically”). Using these scenarios, some spanning several generations, the book attacks the many anxiety-inducing aspects of father-son relationships, some of which are reflected in the titles of the stories: “Determinism,” “Betrayal,” “Disagreement,” “Regret.” The book is also a very funny reflection on the act of writing about fathers itself. In “Sanctuary,” which is a mere paragraph of sublimated rage, a son sits at a kitchen table “producing one unflattering papier-mâché figurine” of his father after another, only to insist to his father that the “figurines depicted ‘men in general.’” In “Exhaustion,” a painter realizes that he would need a “disturbing or distressing number of brushstrokes, if I intend to exhaust my father as a theme and move on to politics, race, religion, sex or existence, if not the Holocaust.”

For this interview, which was conducted over e-mail, I talked to Sachs about how he arrived at this fragmentary form, his influences, and the emotional risk of such a project. I also had a question for Sachs about the provenance of a story set in the Sulfur baths in Tbilisi, Georgia, where a poet becomes obsessed with writing about his father’s manhood (referred to variously as the “genitals of the Muscovite lieutenant,” the “Russian captain’s cock,” the “testicles of a foreign adjutant” and the “northern brigadier general’s balls”). I was with Sachs and his future wife when he visited the Sulfur baths. I was probably present for the birth of this story. I felt I had to get to the bottom of this!

You've described coming to this form through a kind of helplessness. When did the breakthrough happen? How did it feel? What were the influences lurking behind it? Did they surprise you?

I had the idea in November 2013 in this Porter Square coffee shop that I’ve actually been returning to a lot recently because I really need a new revelation for my next book. (So far, nothing. It seems to be good for one book idea.) At the time, though, it felt less like a breaking through than a giving up. I had dozens of false starts on a novel, so I thought, as a temporary distraction from it, I would turn some of those false starts into extremely brief, complete anecdotes. Then, as it seems often happens, the frivolous distraction from the serious project became the serious project. And then, of course, I started justifying the seriousness of the project to myself with a lot of lofty and self-aggrandizing thoughts (some of which I think I do believe) about how fragments are the literary form intrinsic to pessimism and skepticism and modernity. Finally, I convinced myself it was fraudulent to write in anything except fragments.

Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator was a big influence. This was no surprise, since I have a pet theory that Bernhard—either directly or through W. G. Sebald, his glum disciple—is the hidden influence behind a huge swath, maybe the main swath, of contemporary fiction. Geoff Dyer warned us not to sentence ourselves “to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov,” but he forgot to add “Or Bernhard! Or Bernhard! Or Bernhard! Or Bernhard!

In what ways do you see the collection as being larger than the sum of its crazed parables?

While writing it I thought of it as a novel, in part for marketing purposes but not only for that reason. I actually wanted to subtitle it “A Novel,” but my editor, sensibly, said “No.” I hoped that the unity and drama would come from the feeling of a single consciousness investigating a single problem. A model here was the hilarious, horrifying tragicomedy On Certainty, in which Wittgenstein investigates in 676 fragments whether one can claim that the external world exists. And the drama (and the comedy, and the horror) is that you desperately want Wittgenstein to convince himself that it’s okay to claim that the external world exists. I would subtitle that book “A Novel” as well. Or “A Novella.”

Were there any particular figures from the history of science that informed these stories?

Here’s one. For the past few summers I’ve spent a week with my parents in the little Tyrolean village of Alpbach, where Erwin Schrödinger happens to be buried. And my father’s absolute favorite thing to do there is to go into the church graveyard, where all these presumable Nazis are buried, and stand in front of Schrödinger’s grave. At least three or four times during the week he’ll suddenly say: Let’s go check out Schrödinger’s grave!, and we’ll all trudge into the church graveyard and stare respectfully at the gravestone, which has the Schrödinger equation engraved on it. This got me interested in physicists whose namesake equations are engraved on their tombs. Ludwig Boltzmann’s gravestone in Vienna has his entropy formula on it, for example. And eventually I converted this pointless interest into a tiny story.

Travel in general appears to have influenced your work—your stories are set in Prague, Vienna, Finland, San Antonio, Moscow, Vermont, and Italy, among other places.

Well, it’s given me some material like that, I guess. Particularly travel to places that are a little bit removed from my experience but not too far removed. Asia, South America, and Africa, for example, have been useless to me. Useless! But German-speaking Middle Europe has been pretty good to me, in part because of my family’s history there and in part because I like the literature. Still, I would never attempt to depict it faithfully, only to exploit it and tear things out of context.

I read your book partly as a critique of, or response to, conventional American realism. What aspects of realism seem false to you?

I’m not sure it’s about falseness (this is all false!), and I’m not sure it’s specifically about American realism, either. I just object when anyone gets too comfortable in a tradition and neglects to question all of its conventions every time they set out to do anything, in a way that becomes totally paralyzing. (I think that most people are not paralyzed enough.) It is definitely possible to get too comfortable in a modernist strain, too. I don’t think modernism gets closer to the truth of anything, and even though I’m sympathetic to critics like Gabriel Josipovici and enjoy nearly all the same writers he does, I’m skeptical of any quasi-Hegelian story that puts modernism at the end of history, the point when art comes into consciousness of itself, etc. Usually, though I change my mind on this, I think of it as just another tradition, albeit my favorite tradition, with its own conventions, albeit my favorite conventions. (Then again, that view sounds like a cliché of anything-goes postmodernism, which is why I get skeptical of it, too. Somehow I’ve ended this question in complete confusion, sorry.)

You were a screenwriter before you turned to fiction. Why did you shift away from the movies, and what part of that experience has bled through to your prose?

I think the movies shifted away from me first. Studios stopped buying things from me. They bought just a few things from me, and then they stopped, in part because you sell a thing there by pitching it, and I’m a horrible salesman. Telling a half-dozen executives a story aloud is . . . a nightmare. For them, too. After each of my pitches everyone felt really bad and distressed. But what’s stuck with me, I think, is the idea that art, ultimately, should aim to be entertaining. I have a kind of perverse fondness for the rapacious capitalism of Hollywood, as opposed to, you know, an exceptionally supportive poetry group. Though, of course, what I mean by “entertaining” is so broad as to make my belief in it almost perfectly meaningless.

Who are the authors you’ve read the most, and that you return to? Which American authors do you admire, contemporary or otherwise? Who are your father figures in the writing world?

Bernhard, as I mentioned. Kafka. Beckett. (The usual suspects.) Nabokov. Borges. Gert Hofmann. Daniil Kharms. Proust. Garcia Marquez. Lydia Davis, J. Robert Lennon, and Joy Williams have all recently worked in the Voice Imitator tradition, and I admire all of them. Lars Iyer, Rivka Galchen. Vonnegut, some Barthelme, American Nabokov, Singer. Nicholson Baker is my favorite living author, American or otherwise.

You and I visited the sulfur baths in Tbilisi, Georgia together. That experience shows up fully transmuted into one of your mock-historical parables in the collection. Can you describe the process of writing this story?

It began with shame about my body. Then I combined this shame with some factoids about Russian literature gleaned from my wife’s research in that field. So then I had shame and factoids. Next, I recalled going with my dad to the JCC and having to change in the locker room beside him and all these large mature Jewish men. This gave me nostalgia as well as shame leavened by time. I also had an incredibly cursory knowledge of Georgia from our travels there. Finally, to pay my modernist dues, I just needed an oblique way to reference the writing of the story itself. And that’s it: Present-day Shame, Factoids, Nostalgia, Shame Leavened By Time, Cursory Knowledge of a Place, and An Oblique Reference to the Writing of the Story Itself. That’s really all you need to write a story, as far as I can tell.

Your father is famous, but in another field. This strikes me as a very brave book—because the fame of a father is inescapable and you've channeled that anxiety into art. Did you consider not doing it?

Thanks. (Of course, it's not real bravery, it’s at most art-bravery. The bravery of singing a solo in your middle school musical.) I certainly considered not writing anything, and I tried plenty of other careers first. But once I decided to try to write a book, it was always going to be a book about this, since, as you say, that’s where the anxiety was. It was easy to pin down. At the moment my anxiety is unhelpfully diffuse.

Karan Mahajan is the author of The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016).