Damion Searls and Writing Like Someone Else

Soon after reading Damion Searls’s short story collection What we Were Doing and Where we Were Going, I read his translation of Rilke’s “Interiors,” in “Paris Review” 190, and felt some uneasiness. The voice in the translation was Rilke’s, yet I felt it was also Damion Searls’s voice.

Writing fiction can be a way of filtering one’s own life experience through what one has learned as a reader. Along these lines, one could argue that all writing is a form of incredibly free, incredibly loose translation.

Searls has compiled a collection of stories evoked by other stories. “56 Water Street” transposes the not-unannoying narrator of André Gide’s novella “Marshlands” to a more contemporary setting. There are more references to “Marshlands” here than any non-specialist reader can hope to catch. Certain words like “potamogeton,” which refers to a type of pondweed — it’s a great word – are carried from one story to the other. Later Searls says of “Marshlands” that “the literary object as such is indistinct, low-lying, in a narrow tonal range: pale blues and greens and browns. Writing isn’t spectacle, it’s a delicate gray thing; it doesn’t stand out against a background, it is its ambience.” This mood, evocative of a writer’s murky, fluid social existence, is another thing Gide’s story and Searls’s have in common.

“The Cubicles” presents a contemporary dreary job through the prism of a nineteenth-century dreary job, the one described in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House.” A line from “The Cubicles” — “In one form or another, this same change, or syndrome, came over everyone among the cubicles: I mean a certain loss, in an extent proportional to the strength or weakness of one’s character, of the self-generative mobility which distinguishes us from the vegetable kingdom.”

Searls rather aggressively creates his own precursors, setting up associations for me between authors I would not otherwise have connected. One commonality between many of the stories he selects as models is their rather labored irony. In an interview with “The Believer,” Searls has talked in terms of “the new citationism,” cf. Zadie Smith’s reworking of E.M. Forster in “On Beauty.”

In an interview with Shelfari, Searls has said, “Dubravka Ugresic, a Croatian writer I’ve worked with and a good friend, once told me she thinks every writer should serve the cause of Literature before expecting anyone to read their own writing: serve as a teacher, a translator, an editor or publisher.” Reasonable enough, although I believe there are more than four ways to serve the cause. Searls also told Shelfari, “You do find your voice a lot more easily if you try to write like someone else than if you try to write like yourself: if your story is entirely introspective and self-regarding then it’s probably going to sound a lot like all the other stories like that we’ve already read, but the farther you get outside yourself the more it’ll sound like you.”

This is good advice for most writers, but I’m wondering if Searls, in his own fiction, has not already taken it far enough — F.R Leavis said that probably most inspiration is unconscious reminiscence, a thought that may point to the limits of what conscious reminscence can achieve…
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