Panorama City is a district in the San Fernando Valley, next to Van Nuys and not too far from Sherman Oaks, which Moon Unit Zappa made famous years ago with her song “Valley Girl.” The Valley is both a part of Los Angeles, serviced by the LAPD, uses LA Zip Codes, etc., and a world unto itself, being separated from the rest of LA by the Santa Monica mountains. I suppose New Yorkers could think of it as a sort of outer borough. The Valley appealed to me as a place that Oppen could think of as the big city without his ever actually coming over the hill into LA proper. In many ways, he lives on the periphery—I wanted a setting that could echo that. Plus, the geography of the valley appeals to me: mini-malls, palm trees, gas stations, and so on.
Now, why Panorama City, specifically? Because it was developed as a masterplan community, because when founded it had a housing covenant that excluded non-whites from buying new houses, because it has a name rich with hope and ironic disappointment. I like it when masterplans go wrong—when humanity in all its forms asserts itself against rigidity and misguided ideals. Panorama City underwent so-called white flight in the 1970s. It's now about 70% latino. I wanted Oppen's Aunt Liz, who is caucasian, to have remained a fixture in a place that had undergone huge demographic transition.
2) It’s never stated overtly, but it’s clear that Oppen has something along the lines of Asperger's Syndrome. What are the challenges of writing for a main character who operates on a level so different from the average reader, especially from first person? It seems to me that, in order to pull it off (which you do brilliantly!) the writer needs to navigate a narrow course between, on the one hand, taking advantage of the reader through Gump-ian manipulative sentimentality, and on the other, taking advantage of the character (playing his ignorance for laughs in a mean-spirited way, etc.) Did you worry about these things while writing the book?
I don't believe in diagnosing literary characters, unless the author has explicitly provided a diagnosis. Even then, I'm not so excited about it. Diagnoses can be useful in real life, but they just as often create a situation in which a person comes to be defined by their diagnosis, in a way that reduces their individual identity. Everyone is different. That said, Oppen does have some cognitive stuff going on—he describes how the machinery for reading doesn't seem to work properly in his head, for instance. He's preternaturally naïve. He describes himself as a “slow absorber.” And so on.
Now as to whether I worried about threading the Scylla and Charybdis of dopey sentimentality and cruel irony, the answer is yes, yes, yes. Early on, while I was still figuring out what this book was going to be, I knew solidly that I didn't want to write Forrest Gump (the movie—I haven't read the books) and I didn't want to write The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (not a cruel book, per se, but one that depends on dramatic irony for its effects). My first novel, The Interloper, was a darkly comic thing, dripping with irony, that required a certain amount of interpreting the increasingly unreliable narrator. I wasn't interested in doing that with Oppen. I wasn't interested in readers feeling smarter than he is. Obviously, there are moments when we can't help but be better informed, but I avoided making them the main course, so to speak.
I'm happy you think I pulled it off.
3) Besides setting your novel in California, you yourself are a west coast guy; your author bio is brief, but mentions surfing. Is there such a thing as a California novel, or, in your view, a coherent west-coast literature? I imagine that it would be an easier proposition to define New York lit or Midwest lit. How does sunshine and happiness factor in?
Yes, I love surfing. And I love writing. Seems like it would make sense to bring the two together, right? I've tried, multiple times, over the years, from laconic Carveresque water-pastorals to Turner-inspired end-of-the-frontier novel sketches to essayistic things on literary form and wave shape. Failures, all. At this point, I'm keeping the two separate.
As for a California novel, or west-coast literature, I think you'd have to ask somebody else. I've never thought in those terms, and though I've tried to, sometimes, I find myself resisting. I mean, I'm not interested in The Literature of Eastern Ontario; I'm interested in Alice Munro. I get that there are people who put things into geographical and historical context. I've been one of those people, or tried to be, while pursuing an English Literature degree. But in my particular practice as a novelist, defining California literature as a coherent thing takes a back seat to, e.g., figuring out how people prevent unauthorized access to the dumpsters behind fast food places.
4) I’ll leave this question open-ended, but it seems like a good time to ask, given the recent spike of discussion surrounding him: how does David Foster Wallace figure in your writing life? I think I see some shared concerns between your work and his.
I always liked what DFW had to say about literature being something that could make us feel less alone. And, having just read the DT Max biography, I see how essential that was to him. As for shared concerns, it seems to me that, if I'm not being too vague here, DFW was always trying to figure it out. His work, however pyrotechnic it can be at times, has a moral center to it, and that center is occupied by a question mark. So when you read his work, you feel like you're engaged with him in the struggle to understand, to find meaning, to decide. (As opposed to say, the Franzen of Freedom, who reads to me more like someone who believes he has figured it out and is delivering the news.) I too am always trying to figure it out, so that's a shared concern. But probably one shared with many (most? all?) people trying to write a certain kind of fiction.
Your question makes me realize that I never cite DFW as an influence, even though his work—his fiction—is always near me somewhere. In my office, on my nightstand, even in my car, in the form of an audiobook. I probably don't mention him because I haven't finished reading Infinite Jest, and there's a sort of cult of expertise around his oeuvre, but his work is a source of near-constant nourishment for me as a writer.
5) In the book, everyone has something to sell, be it individualism, Christianity, solipsism, etc, even if they don’t truly believe in what they’re selling. Oppen, perfect neophyte, allows these things in turn to fill his empty vessel for a while, before replacing it with the next thing, and finally sort of swears off of the whole endeavor of attempting to become anything else at all. Is the core of this book something like a warning about the folly of trying to fix the holes within ourselves with these external –isms?
I'm skeptical of –isms. They're useful in signaling to others where you're coming from, but internally, most of them are not supple enough to accommodate the vagaries of lived experience. I'd say that I'm into antifundamentalism, but that's an –ism, isn't it? Arg!
Oppen's journey is at its core a bildungsroman. He tries things on in an attempt to find his place in the world, the round hole into which he can squeeze his square peg, so to speak. What he discovers is that the peg model is flawed. You don't become something that already exists. You become yourself—you can't help but become yourself—and if you're lucky, the world makes room for you.