ULTRALUMINOUS: KATHERINE FAW with Sean Madigan Hoen
Katherine and I have been friends for a little while. I met her at an ill-fated book sale where we were both stationed behind tables on which our recently published books were stacked, and no one was buying. I joined her outside for a cigarette, despite having quit three years earlier, and we talked about her first novel, Young God, an elegantly nasty story someone might attempt to categorize as “trailer park noir” if that someone had no eye or ear for aesthetics. The beauty of Faw’s prose has so much to do with “white space,” with space in general, and the patterns that arise to fill in that space. Young God haunts you with stark, clipped, almost expressionistic scenes that track one of the most memorable anti-heroines in recent literature: Nikki, a motherless, enterprising adolescent who’s learning quickly about lipstick, pills, cocaine, and what it takes to overthrow the local white trash drug kingpin (who happens to be her father, who’s also a pimp).
Katherine is a connoisseur of the high (she turned me onto the novels of Edward St. Aubyn and introduced me to the On Kawara retrospective at the Guggenheim) and the low (she loves the grimiest rap and took me along to screenings of exploitation films like The Bronx Warriors at dank theatres whose amenities were lawn chairs and canned beer). This paradox is evident in the woman herself: a lithe, whip-smart aesthete with piercing eyes and an intolerance for bullshit who’s likely to be dressed in head-to-toe leopard print and dragging on a Marlboro while explaining what to do when a pit bull clamps its jaws on you: “Stick your finger in its butthole.”
K, the narrator of Ultraluminous, Faw’s second novel, is also seen wearing head-to-toe leopard print. And, like Young God’s Nikki, K, in Faw’s words, “Is me, if I were a long-time prostitute and not a long time writer, and if I were completely stylized, if I were a piece of art rather than a person.”
K is a gun-toting heroin addict recently returned to New York after fifteen years in Dubai, and she’s working a roster of big-money clients—Wall Street dudes so gone on self-indulgent power they bid to punch her, break fingers, and “buy” her for months or even years. K gives a different name to each client, and refers to none of them by their names (there’s “junk-bond guy,” “calf’s brain guy,” and also a sort-of boyfriend, “ex-Ranger,” whom she doesn’t charge but rather enables in his own heroin addiction while rooting around his closet, which is stocked like an arsenal). Her control and attention to pattern-making is part of what drives the narrative, which is told in terse, very short passages, the longest somewhere around thirteen lines and the shortest going something like, “At the exact speed the junk-bond guy licks a line up my pussy I arch my back and moan for him.”
That its narrative is able to achieve true propulsion through these snippets is one of the great accomplishments of Ultraluminous, as is the development of the subtle and not-so-subtle patterns and repetitions which illuminate K’s warped but eerily focused consciousness. Though K reveals little of her deepest thoughts or wounds, she’s intensely discreet when describing the gestures of her daily life, whether it’s buying sushi from Duane Reade or acknowledging the “softest smell of shit” while eating out the asshole of one her clients. The reader comes to realize that K is engaged in what she sees as a larger pattern, or system of pattern-making, one fed by the art exhibits and films she routinely imbibes. Whether her perception of these patterns is a futile attempt to organize chaos or a self-designed engine driving her towards a final, irrevocable act is part of the mystery of this strangely enchanting, prurient and sometimes funny exploration of power, control, and loveless sex.
Katherine and I talked in late November, a couple weeks before the book’s publication.
Sean Madigan Hoen (Rail): One of the reasons K is so fascinating is because we get so close to her routine and the intimacies of her daily life, yet to the degree that she’s lost to herself, she’s lost to the reader—her mysteriousness seems, in a way, self-contained, and the narrative allows glimpses into that vacuum. How did you come to write a character like her, one whose psychic boundaries and self-containment feels so pathologically developed? How did you “find” this character?
Katherine Faw: She arrived pretty fully formed in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. Though she used to be meaner and then she softened up over the years as people do. But I never think about finding characters, or their psychologies, or any events that happened to them that don’t appear in the book. To the extent she is a person she is me. She is me during the time I was writing this book, but me if I were a long-time prostitute and not a long-time writer, and if I were completely stylized, if I were a piece of art rather than a person.
Verisimilitude is important to me, especially emotional and geographical verisimilitude. But there is artificiality built into verisimilitude, which is only the appearance of being true. I prefer books that are honest about being constructed objects, that acknowledge that they are artificial.
As far as her being a black box, so is every person who is not you, whether you know a lot of things about them or not. The reader in not K, so to the reader K should be ultimately unknowable, a mystery like any real person, for verisimilitude.
Rail: It’s fascinating to hear you say that to the extent she is a person, K is you, because, based on what little I know of you, I noticed some base similarities. I also believe I’ve seen you wearing “all leopard print” and I could imagine you having a functional relationship with the Duane Reade sushi bar, although I didn’t know such a thing existed.
Faw: It’s true that I did have Thanksgiving dinner this year at Veselka, a Ukrainian diner, while wearing at least 50% leopard-print. I mean, we would have gone to Little Poland, which happens to be the Polish diner K goes into the book, but it was currently shut down by the health department.
The Duane Reade sushi thing is just a joke I had with myself. Duane Reade is a New York City drugstore chain, and sometime during New York’s total makeover of recent years, it was bought by Walgreens and seemingly overnight all the stores were renovated. There was no dust, they were well-lit, the aisles were wide—it was like suddenly being in the suburbs. Except they included what I guess they thought New Yorkers would like, which was sushi. And every time I saw it, I would think to myself who, exactly, would buy drugstore sushi? I decided it would only be somebody who didn’t care about living or dying, but in the most insolent way.
I also have a weird aversion to naming characters. It feels extra fantastical to me, imaginary, in a way I don’t like. In Young God, Nikki was the name of the real girl I saw jump off the waterfall in North Carolina that spurred the writing of the book. And in Ultraluminous, K’s many names, all of which begin with K, are Slavic diminutives for Katherine.
Rail: One of the things I liked about K’s interiority—the obsessive search for pattern, the attention to routine and repetition—was that it felt not only like that of an addict’s but also, perhaps, an artist’s. Or a certain kind of artist’s. And your novel—its prose and form—seems issued directly from a psyche preoccupied with repetition, routine, time, place, pattern making. It feels very alive in that way. Did you find yourself living, to some extent, the rhythm of this novel while you were writing it?
Faw: In all things and every day, I’m a repetitive, obsessive pattern-maker. As far as writing, I can’t write anything without knowing the structure first. I have to have the physical shape of it in my head. That shape does change during the process of writing a book, but it only becomes more clearly defined; it doesn’t morph.
As humans, we’re always trying to order chaos, and the ultimate pattern we’ve come up with is time. In my head, all my life, I’ve had an unchanging pattern of time. It’s a strange 3D shape that I can visualize that never changes. I can see every year that ever was or will be. I can zoom in on the timeline to see individual months and days. It’s a more boring form of synesthesia, time-space synesthesia, but it has always given me this conception of time as a permanent visual shape. I wanted this book to be a shape of time, too.
Of course it’s useless, all this ordering. I have always liked in mythology that the father of Zeus was Chronos and the father of Chronos was Uranus (the sky, space) and the father of Uranus was Chaos, the first thing to exist.
Rail: We saw the On Kawara exhibit together at Guggenheim. While reading Ultraluminous, I couldn’t help thinking of that show, and was pleasantly surprised when K finds herself at a Guggenheim installation very similar to the one we saw. Did that show have a direct influence on K and/or the novel’s somewhat conceptual form, or any other aspect?
Faw: That’s pleasantly surprising to me that you would think of the On Kawara show before coming across the scene in the book. I do think of all the exhibitions in the book—which, like all the films in the book, are ones I saw during its writing—the On Kawara is the closest to the book’s structure, which means it’s the closest to K. His work is all about repetition that makes patterns that make structures that make the most important and most arbitrary structure, which is time.
K is interested in his telegrams, 900 of which say I AM STILL ALIVE and one of which says I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON’T WORRY, because that’s what is most interesting for the book, but what was most interesting to me in the show were the date paintings. As I get older, I sometimes feel time like folded-up paper, everything I did and was in the past folded up and pressing down on me, and it creates this intense, brief melancholy where I’m in all my time at once. And spiraling up the Guggenheim, by the time I reached the top and the last date painting—which was made shortly before On Kawara died, I think, and he died shortly before the opening of that show—I felt like I had really seen that particular sensation in physical form.
Rail: Your experience of time, and its relationship to your work, is so fascinating to me because it’s completely foreign to mine. I’m someone who’s much more at the mercy of memory, and trauma’s effect on memory, in the sense that I can find myself relieving the feeling of moments that have long since passed. “Trauma,” I’ve heard it said, “is timeless.” Time can feel very slippery and disorganized to me. Do you think pattern making—whether yours, or K’s, or On Kawara’s—is, as much as anything, an attempt at controlling emotion?
Faw: Yes, at least for me. My ideal emotional state is neutral. I hate feeling like I’m a swinging pendulum; I want to be in the still middle, always. And making macro and micro patterns is a great way to futilely stay there. It’s also about controlling outcomes, dominating the future, subordinating the unknowable. Naturally none of this actually works.
When I experience time folded-up that way it does feel traumatic. It feels like all my memories, good and bad, compressed into one unit. Like I’ve taken my hands and smashed together every year of my life from 1983 to 2017. It feels crushing. It also feels like a reminder of how I’m just wandering toward death, like all things.
The title of Ultraluminous for a long time was Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space.
Rail: In its own way your first novel, Young God, progressed through sequences of repeating patterns or rhythms. How does pattern operate in your process? Is that something you address consciously?
Faw: Pattern is the most important part of my writing process. It’s conscious but when it’s really working it’s subconscious. I think my writing relies a lot on looping back to language and images that have already occurred and I exploit that fully. But during the editing process I will find so many patterns and associations that I didn’t realize I was making. In a way, those surprises are the most enjoyable part of writing for me, and I certainly take them as evidence that the book is working.
On the level of language, I like sentences to look a certain way on the page—sometimes I will cut one if it throws off the shape of the paragraph—but most important is rhythm, how it sounds in my head. Rhythm is my favorite human quality, even over elegance. Though anybody who is rhythmic is elegant, too. One thing I love about movies is that they are these visual compilations of physicality, of the rhythms of people’s gestures. Most of my favorite scenes in movies are of people dancing well.
Rail: With Ultraluminous, which is composed in terse, fragmented scenes—glances, really, some no longer than a few words—how did you organize the narrative? Was there a lot of reordering of the pieces? I loved that you were able to achieve such momentum despite never indulging in a riff that was longer than a paragraph or two.
Faw: I always see a scene visually in my head, fully choreographed, before I write it down. In that way, my writing is very filmic. I thought of all the fragments as building on each other, like scenes do in a movie, of accumulating, which is also what happens with time—we are always adding days. And this book is almost every day in a year of her life.
There was some reordering of the fragments in the very beginning but not much after that. I always write in sequence and my intention was to have her relationships modulate and progress in a way that would make swapping a scene from page 4 with one from page 104 not really work, though also to make it seem like it might.
Because, though we are always changing and only going forward, we often think of ourselves as static personalities. The truth is that on day 4 of this year you were different than you are today; you were a version of yourself that’s already passed.
Rail: I was really impressed with how K’s wounds were revealed, how I was able to get quick glimpses of her emotional damages only once the patterns began breaking down (or accelerating, depending on how you see it). When she finally cries, it’s subtle but it’s also such a revelation.
Faw: I love gestures. I’m always trying to describe them in writing and make scenes that are just dialogue, physical gestures, and context you have to work out for yourself, like it is in life. The scene where she cries, I wanted to describe it physically, exactly what position she is in in space, which is intertwined with a man, him on top and her on the bottom, her face pressed against his chest, and that’s it. But, of course, it only works because of accumulation. If that scene works, it’s because the reader feels everything that has come before at once, like K does.
I think Nikki only cries once in Young God, too, and near the end. I can’t remember where she is or what she’s doing but presumably it is an angrier, younger, less sad cry than K’s.
Rail: As a healthy, red-blooded male, another thing I was struck by was, despite this novel featuring more sex and orgasms and bodily fluids than most, how completely un-erotic the experience was. I’m sure there will be a type of reader who feels otherwise, but for me the stimulation was aesthetic and emotional and not even vaguely sexual, let alone romantic. The book is sexy in its stylishness, but do you see it as a sexual novel?
Faw: I see it as a novel about a prostitute. A prostitute’s job is sex and prostitution is not a romantic job. I felt like I was writing the facts of what goes on between K and her clients. And for her livelihood, to be good at her job, she’s made herself into this fantasy object, so it’s a certain kind of sex, too.
That said, though K is too smart and has seen too much for teenage, romantic ideas of sex, I do think there is love in this book. She loves the ex-Ranger and the Sheikh, who are men she has chosen for herself and who don’t pay her. She is tender with them. I think the best art, that is truly mature and wise, is never soft but always has tenderness.
Rail: Maybe another question is: what do you think this book says about men, or, to use the current phrase, “toxic masculinity”?
Faw: I think the book is honest about the type of men who buy high-end prostitutes like K. With any expensive purchase, there is entitlement. You have spent a lot of money on something so you want it to perform accordingly. You also want to be in complete control over it, to do with it whatever you want, because it is costing you so much. When this expensive thing also happens to be a person, I do think it creates a toxicity. Because it is not two people who like each other, or two people conducting a business transaction, but a person and a thing.
Rail: Hence the escalation from commanding sexual acts to punching, to breaking fingers? What can you say about K’s psychology as it relates to that, her willingness to endure physical abuse for money? She’s pretty stoic about it. I think the book has some graceful allusions to the psychoanalytic why of it, but I wonder if you could share your theories… is that aspect even important to the book?
Faw: I’m not very interested in psychoanalyzing my characters. That is my least favorite type of fiction—that middlebrow, psychological theorizing about the interiorities of all the characters. I’m just suspicious of psychoanalytical theories in general. What you can actually learn about other people is much subtler. It’s through what they tell you and their physical actions. Everything else is just speculation.
Also for K, it’s not an escalation but a repetition or a pattern playing out. She’s had her fingers broken before.
Rail: In my twenties, I had a strong desire to talk with prostitutes in Detroit. These were women who walked Michigan Avenue and were almost certainly doing it for crack money, which I guess isn’t entirely different from K’s motive, as she’s supporting a heroin habit. I’d pick them up sometimes just to talk, which didn’t feel voyeuristic at the time, though I was definitely working out something emotionally, just wanting to know who they were, wanting to glimpse a human being behind the makeup, maybe wanting to show them not all men were sickos—which says more about me than them. But I remember very clearly being shocked when one of them told me she’d gone to a Def Leppard concert that summer—it was like I couldn’t visualize her anywhere but walking that street. Did writing this book expand your thoughts or empathy on prostitution in any other, perhaps unexpected, ways?
Faw: I have always had a lot of empathy for all women because I know how hard and complicated it is to be one. I have empathy for men, too, but it is different because I don’t know what it’s like to be a man.
I think prostitution is a particularly hard job because not only is it mortally dangerous, you also have to give so much of yourself away. Like the women you picked up, you didn’t want sex from them, but you did want emotional validation. One thing I thought a lot about when writing this book is how absolutely exhausting it must be to be a prostitute, just how tired K would be after 15 years.
Rail: Did you do any research into high-dollar escorts? Have you had much contact with the types of Wall Street sex addicts—the clients—featured in the novel?
Faw: I never really do research. I read voraciously so I’m always amassing information on all sorts of things, but when it comes to writing a book I tend to write out of emotional experience rather than gathered facts. I have never done sex work or hung out much with Wall Street guys, but I think I was able to imagine what it would be like enough to hang a frame around the emotions in the book, which are true and mine.
Recently, I was talking to my boyfriend (partner? I feel like people say partner now) about the first paintings we really loved, that opened us up to the possibilities in art. Mine was Manet’s Olympia, which is a painting of a prostitute that was initially scandalous because for the first time the beautiful naked woman was staring at the viewer confrontationally. I loved her immediately, as soon as I saw her, because she was defiant.
Rail: K’s idiosyncratic absorption of art reminded me of some of DeLillo’s characters, and he’s talked a lot about the influence of abstract expressionism on his novels. You’ve said that film and visual art are equally important to literature in terms of influence on your writing. Can you talk about how you synthesize those influences, if there is, in fact, a conscious process at work? Do you take notes while you’re at museums or watching films?
Faw: I do not take notes and that causes problems in the long run. I think of myself as having a very good memory, and I do for dates when things happened, but I do not for details of art, which was really brought home to me during the editing of this book. I never wrote about the film or art I had seen until a few weeks or even months after and inevitably, I realized when fact-checking the book, I got at least one small detail slightly wrong. I fixed what I found, but I’m sure I missed some, too, which mortifies me. But there is a lot to keep in your mind when you are writing a book.
At the same time, I like there being a lag time between seeing something and writing about it. Because what ultimately sticks with me, what I think I remember, is always some very idiosyncratic aspect that has become large in my mind for some reason but is usually very minor in the film or artwork itself. I’m like that with music, too. If I know a band or artist well, my favorite song will always be some obscure track that nobody else cares about but that feels uniquely beautiful to me.
Rail: What can you say about K’s ultimate decision? As someone who thinks that the power systems responsible for global economic inequality are by far the largest threat to our species, I found the end to be horrifically heroic.
Faw: In a way it’s heroic, and I do think she thinks she has done something with her life. But ultimately, for me, it’s just another horror in a world of horrors. Though it has ended something for her, it won’t change anything else.
I know some people have a lot of reverence for the Baader-Meinhof Group, but when I recently tried to read a book about them what struck me was their naiveté and selfishness. Idealism and ideology have always made me very uncomfortable, and K has none of that, but her ultimate decision is in many ways just as blinded and rigid.
I like to think of her as blowback. If you push the universe too far in one direction, someday, eventually, it will blow back the other way.
Rail: And what has become of K’s pattern by that point? Has she, in a sense, abandoned pattern and returned to the original state: chaos, the source of all things?
Faw: I think she has played out the pattern she has made to its end. To her, she is stopping chaos. However, throughout the book she also worries about whether the universe is a closed system or not, whether she will live on and on, as light just reaching another galaxy thousands of years from now.
I think we live in chaos, that it’s the natural state of all things. But I also think there will be an end to everything. Of course humans will be long extinct by then. There will be something else that exists after us, but at the very end there will be nothing.
Rail: I’ll spare you the question about what you’re working on next, unless you’d like to share anything about that. But I do wonder if it’s a difficult transition, to break from such a focused project and find a new rhythm.
Faw: I’m working on a novel about film. It has been a longer transition than the one between Young God and Ultraluminous. It took me a while to find the form. Maybe because Ultraluminous felt like such a high compression of me that I needed to accumulate more days before I moved on. But I’m different now.
ContributorSean Madigan Hoen
Is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.