Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book, is the rare hilarious novel. The book is really, really funny, but only in the ways that humans (and elderly, one-eyed pugs) are so funny. It’s painfully sad, but only in the ways that life is often painful and sad. Like his previous novels, The Sarah Book takes place in West Virginia, a place where people nod off on drugs in their cars, do sex work in their cars, drink gin and drive with their children in the back seats of their cars and where, for a few days after separating from his wife, a man named Scott McClanahan lives, in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, in his car.
McClanahan has the near-Cubist ability to present people and situations in every shade of gray. He’ll argue a viewpoint and then dispute it on the very next page. His best trick is that you’ll find yourself agreeing with both. His characters, their lives, and their region of America are presented tenderly, but as neither sacred nor pitiful. The Sarah Book is a book of one man’s divorce, but it’s also about people and place, and the connections we have to one another, whether we want them or not.
The Sarah Book opens with this passage, which works on two levels to establish the premise of the novel:
There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.
The first level is a truism: life’s a bitch and then you die. But the second is metafictional, in that it’s also a rough outline for the novel itself. The fact that this passage ends—and the book begins—with loss, as opposed to a question of redemption, or what we pass on to future generations and the earth, is a striking shift from McClanahan’s previous novels.
In an interview several years ago, you said: “I don’t feel like writing is therapy—ever. And I don’t think any redemption has come with the completion of the book. This writing stuff has actually helped me to lose everything I ever cared about. I lost a family over the amount of time I’ve spent on it. It’s some weird graphomania I can’t stop. I wish a doctor could cure me. My books are my demons and I want to be rid of them.” You haven’t stopped writing, and you seem to have doubled down on the inevitability of loss. Are those facts related?
Maybe they are. But it’s the opposite now. I’ve been really happy for three years and have stopped losing things for the time being. So maybe that’s because I stopped writing. I’ve always felt the rewards from writing were more like that old joke about Willie Nelson. What’s the one thing you don’t want to hear when you’re sucking Willie Nelson’s dick? Answer: I’m not Willie Nelson.
That’s lit culture for the most part.
As far as the other quote goes, that Scott McClanahan sounds like an idiot. Whatever that guy lost, he lost it because he was a bad person and a drunk and a dope-head. Writers are like soldiers. Only worry when they stop bitching. Or at least when their self-pity or self-righteousness runs out. I get to write books and publish books with Gian and then complain about how much they cost me in interviews. But that’s America.
I guess I opened the book that way because it felt like a thesis statement or something. People only understand something if you tell them what it’s about. That’s one of the plagiarized parts of the book. I stole that section from Kris Kristofferson who stole it from the light featherweight champion Willie Pep. Willie Pep’s version concerned his reflexes. I think the part about losing yourself is mine though.
West Virginia will soon be the rest of the world and it’s about time. You’re welcome, America.
I’m interested in knowing how much you’re concerned with reader empathy while you’re writing. Even at her most angry, Sarah is always able to laugh at the narrator, which both diffuses the possibility of danger or violence while also making the narrator seem more pitiful, which further reinforces empathy. It’s hard to not feel bad for the guy, even when his behavior veers uncomfortably close to harassment and stalking. I’m curious to know if this was a balance you had to carefully construct with plot, or if it arose more naturally from the warmth with which the supporting characters are depicted?
I couldn’t care less about reader empathy. I think you have to say “Fuck you” to the reader. I used to be a substitute teacher for a kindergarten class. Every morning we would have our milk break at 9:45. I would go to the fridge and get out the milk and pass the individual milk cartons to the kids. One kid would say, “Thank you teacher.” The next kid would say, “Thank you teacher.” One morning I was watching them drink their milk and I thought, “It’s so weird. They’re not even people really. They’re just little machines.” It was the same way during story time. They always laughed at the same parts in the same exact ways. It was like this day after day. We’re just animals really, waiting for the treat.
Books are like that. They’re magic tricks. I’m more interested in the trick, rather than how the reader reacts to the trick. I know how they’re going to react if I’ve tricked them well enough because most readers are fairly thick. Of course, you’ve understood how the trick worked from the question you asked. Humor and levity can cover up the most vile, sociopathic behavior. Most of us wouldn’t mind having dinner with a murderer as long as they were full of wit and good stories. We like Hamlet and Falstaff because they’re funny.
My hometown newspaper’s front page used to be about people being killed in drunk driving and hunting accidents when I grew up, but now it’s meth lab explosions, opioid overdoses, and opinion pieces about how the fracking that was done over the past decade gutted the land, displaced people, and of course only created wealth for the shareholders of energy companies. This is a common story, and one that keeps being told as an explanation for the election. Do you think art set in West Virginia functions as foreshadowing for the rest of the country?
Yes, West Virginia will soon be the rest of the world and it’s about time. You’re welcome, America. A story: Last week I had a student who missed class because she was in a car accident. Then a few hours later in a different class I had a student who emailed and said he was going to miss class because he just witnessed his next door neighbor get murdered. I sent an email back that said, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” It turns out this kid hit the first student with a stolen car. A man in a truck jumped out to help my student who was trapped in her car. The kid who caused the accident jumped in the guy’s truck and stole it. He drove for a few miles and ditched the truck. He got in a fight with a coal truck driver after trying to steal his truck. The coal truck driver beat him up and drove on. Finally the kid was able to steal another car which he ended up running into a ditch. A Good Samaritan came out of his house to help. The kid shot and killed the Good Samaritan, stole his car that was parked in his driveway and took off. The cops by this point were in hot pursuit, but he was able to drive all of the way to a church, where he jumped out of the car, ran into the church and then killed himself on the pulpit beneath the figure of Christ.
It’s a horrific story but the person who told it to me was halfway laughing. There’s a long strain of hillbilly fatalism that the rest of the country has recently picked up on. If you understand why the person was laughing, then you will understand why people voted the way they did in the last presidential election.
Most people are fools, believing that people are good, rational people if you just present them with the proper facts. Hah. Could we be more naïve?
There’s a scene in the novel in which the narrator is having a panic attack in his mother’s bathroom, and it’s particularly powerful because his toddler son is in the room with him. How has having kids changed your writing habits, or your topics of focus?
I’d rather hang out with a bunch of little kids than write. So that’s never been a problem. Any excuse I can have to keep me from writing is like an answered prayer. I really don’t understand why people put so much pressure on themselves to write. It’s horrible. I wish more people would hang out with little kids so they wouldn’t write as much. Might save us from so many literary historical novels or those horrible personal essay collections or those “way we live now” novels that get published by the thousands.
My whole life is a story and now Sarah gave birth to two little people who I get to steal stories from in the future. That’s a goldmine. How is that not fucking amazing? I mean my son Sam gave me an entire story that’s become a metaphor for my life and I put it in the Sarah Book. I got Iris holding me like one of her baby dolls when I was crying and drunk and I put that in the book. I sure as hell wouldn’t have got that story if I was busy writing or thinking about the focus of my writing. That’s the great things about little kids. You can steal stories from them because they’re little kids and little kids can’t sue you. We almost all died together last summer driving through a flood. I have that story now too.
At the same time there’s a darkness in it. You just open yourself up to more fear. It’s weird knowing I could be destroyed by the loss of something. I really could now. This isn’t even a wife or a parent. This is something that you made that would mean the end of you if it wasn’t here any longer. It’s like human dynamite.
Pain, both physical and mental, is a huge part of the book. Is pain the invisible force that draws people together? I see this book, as an illustration of pain, as itself a catalyst for togetherness, for feeling a tiny bit less lonely. Is this art’s purpose?
I don’t think art has any purpose to be quite honest. That’s the reason why it’s so important. It’s like Serra’s idea of sculpture. And just because pain doesn’t have a purpose doesn’t mean it’s not important as well. I don’t ever think about what the purpose of walking across the grass is, but I still enjoy it. As much as anything.
It seems like we live in a world now where pain is judged like the Olympics. For example, this pain is more important than that pain, etc. I’m against these people with every fiber of my being. I’ve been around fake ass Baptist preachers all my life who preach the same shit. I still believe in the old roman maxim that “Nothing human is alien to me.” That is the writer’s prayer: NOTHING IS ALIEN. The pain of a Rockefeller is the same pain to me as someone who died in the Gulag. Only the new Puritans want to say different and make us join distinct teams, which is bullshit.
The character of my mom in the book says that all suffering is love from god. I don’t believe in god, but I believe in this. Sir Thomas Aquinas believed in the same thing. It’s the only thing that makes existence make sense to me. But beyond that the only thing I believe in is doubt. Everyone is so sure of themselves nowadays, but I’m not. I doubt, doubt, doubt, doubt.
The Sarah Book is out July 7 from NY Tyrant.