It would not be an exaggeration to say that during my years as a student at Barnard College, I followed Margaret Vandenburg around. Whatever class she taught, I took, even if I had only a passing interest in the subject. It takes, for example, an exceptional professor to convince a roomful of late-semester seniors in a 19th-century American Literature class that James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers is a relevant, let alone rewarding, read. And yet, even without the desperate ramping up of theatrics to which many teachers resort (myself included), Vandenburg managed to reveal the artfulness and lyricism (and yes, relevance) of not only these early, earnest Americans, but of her beloved Modernists and, as she recently confessed to me, of her new love, the Postmodernists.
The Permanent Press will publish Vandenburg’s two latest novels, The Home Front and Weapons of Mass Destruction, later this year. Her first novel, An American in Paris, was published in 2000 by Cleis Press. She is also the librettist for Ada, an opera which explores the life and work of Ada Lovelace Byron. We conducted this interview in her office at Barnard College, where she has been a faculty member since 1998.
Rachel Abramowitz: Tell me about the origins of these two books, because they’re related, they both have war themes, right? What inspired you to write them?
Margaret Vandenburg: I still think literature matters—that it can save the planet, or at least tell us what the hell is wrong with it. Right before I started writing Weapons of Mass Destruction, I finished a novel about the prescription drug industry (called Brave New York), about how prescription drugs are flattening out the range of acceptable behavior. So I got that out of my system. And I thought, what’s really getting my goat now? It was in the middle of the Iraq War and Bush was still president, or was it Cheney? It’s all a blur now. The war seemed inescapable, even from a civilian point of view, since it was our paranoia—not just the president’s—that got us into that mess. I knew people would say it was ridiculous, but I was too outraged to write about anything else.
RA: Ridiculous in what way?
MV: Ridiculous because you’re supposed to write about what you know, whatever that means. Guess what? I knew I was outraged and, at the same time, I was complicit. But I didn’t want to make it all about me, the way the good old U. S. of A. tends to make global politics all about them. Us. So I set out to write a combat novel. And there’s something ridiculous about that, too, trying to get inside of combat. Inside the heads of soldiers doing our dirty work. I wanted to address our complicity by expressing my outrage. That’s probably why I’ve always liked war novels—their outrage—and I’ve read a lot of them and they’re almost never about combat. The Naked and the Dead is a notable exception, probably because Norman Mailer served more as a cook than a soldier in World War II. The greatest novel of the Vietnam War, Going After Cacciato, has very little actual combat in it. That makes sense to a certain extent because Vietnam was a sort of surreal war—almost psychedelic—and Tim O’Brien wrote in a style suited to the Sixties. But I missed reading about combat. I guess that’s what civilians need to hear about. It’s almost like O’Brien didn’t need to write about it—maybe couldn’t bear to write about it—but we need to have our noses rubbed in it. As much as I admire Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, war novels set in drawing rooms, I wanted the war to happen in Iraq, not New York City. Women in particular seemed to shy away from writing about combat, as though it were a particularly ridiculous subject for them. Alas. Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite has some powerful battle scenes in the Korean War, but it’s ultimately about two kids orphaned by the war, not the soldiers who orphaned them. So I dove down the rabbit hole, which in this case meant reading every Iraq War memoir I could get my hands on. Talking to veterans, including family members. When I finally resurfaced with Weapons of Mass Destruction in hand, the Iraq War was ostensibly over and Bush was finally back on the ranch in Texas, out of sight, out of mind. But the so-called War on Terror wasn’t over and we were waging it with drones this time around, also out of sight, out of mind. Soldiers coming home from Iraq were suffering from unprecedented levels of PTSD, a symptom of moral injury, not shell shock, thanks to the sketchy ethics of these goddamned wars. It turns out PTSD rates among drone pilots were also off the charts because moral injury is exacerbated when there’s no there there. Then I knew that I wasn’t finished with the military stuff. I needed to write about drone warfare, which meant The Home Front had to be set in Nevada and the novel had to be a family portrait of a guy who drops bombs on Afghan targets one minute and sits down to dinner with his family the next. Talk about moral injury.
RA: So you don’t seem to need too much distance between the actual event and the writing about it. Do you feel that writers need to wait a few years before they can write about a particular moment in history, or can one be in the middle of it, like with this drone thing? It seems like it came up and you wrote about it then and there.
MV: Time must be speeding up. Don DeLillo wrote Falling Man within six years of 9/11. And then there’s The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which came of two years ago. I thought that eventually, if we were lucky, the Tim O’Brien of the Iraq War might manage to translate his experience into fiction. But certainly not within a year of withdrawing troops. And The Yellow Birds is a sublime novel. People are starting to write about things almost contemporaneously.
RA: Do you think the Iraq War had the same kind of surreal speed as the Vietnam War? Is that the most equivalent war you can find to what’s happening now?
MV: From a moral injury point of view, yes.
RA: And do you model your writing after that kind of [Vietnam War] surrealism or the way that war is described? Not the combat, obviously, because you didn’t find a lot of that, but in writing about combat did you use some of the same strategies that those authors were using? Or did you have to come up with a whole new way to describe the experience?
MV: Actually, Weapons of Mass Destruction is more journalistic. Like Hemingway, only that was then and this is now. Besides, I would hesitate to compare myself with such a legend, especially since his nickname was Papa. Even before Kevin Powers wrote his masterpiece, a lot of good memoirs were coming out of the Iraq War. The default style of war memoirs is journalistic, probably because they’re usually written first by war correspondents, in this case embedded reporters, and then by the soldiers themselves. This particular style has built-in distance, which seems to mirror the need to compartmentalize combat trauma in order to survive it. A wedding of form and content, which is particularly common in war novels.
RA: Does that style actually capture the feeling of being there, or as the reader is reading it does he or she have to manufacture the actual feelings based on the facts? I mean, the surrealism seems to help with the experience itself.
MV: You’re certainly right about that. And there are a few surreal scenes in Weapons of Mass Destruction. There’s a scene where the platoon is in a very tight spot in Fallujah, and they have to knock this building down with a SMAW [Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon], which is definitely not the right tool for the job, so to speak. But it’s their only hope. So they keep hammering away at it, and the building finally falls and there’s a flashback to the Twin Towers. That surreal image we watched over and over on TV, one tower and then the other melting into thin air. Inconceivable. Another scene with a suicide bomber feels like that, too, the way time slows down when you witness something inconceivable. But overall, this novel is more about the pace of house-to-house combat. The intimacy of it. Storming into people’s bedrooms and bathrooms. Kicking down door after door after door without knowing whether you’ll confront enemy combatants or a mother and her children cowering in a corner. Trying to make split-second distinctions.
RA: It sounds staccato or punctuated or something. You’re checking things off as you go.
MV: That’s right. One thing after another—rapid-fire, in your face—at least to the extent that words can convey that sensation.
RA: So for someone who was not in combat, you said that for a woman to write about this it’s tricky or ridiculous…
MV: Allegedly ridiculous. It all boils down to the debate over who’s qualified to write about what. Which may or may not be a ridiculous question. One way or the other, the fact that there are so few brilliant war novels tells us something, namely, that sometimes they need to be written by people who are not at war. It’s great to have military personnel transcribe their experiences, but war doesn’t stop there. Nations go to war. Civilians feed the war machine. We’re all in this together, unfortunately, and we need to stop asking who’s qualified to write about any given thing.
RA: Across race, across religion, across gender?
MV: Everything and everybody. I mean it used to be that men wrote women and nobody cared. Madame Bovary. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Anna Karenina. Maybe not all brilliant, but two out of three ain’t bad. A towering genius like Shakespeare never wrote a single thing about himself, at least in his plays. He didn’t write about anything he knew per se, and, well, let’s just say his writing didn’t suffer for it.
RA: So you find that writers today feel a pressure to write only about what they know?
MV: Now more than ever.
RA: Where does that come from?
MV: Narcissism? And identity politics, to a certain extent, which have made people think that literature is somehow inescapably autobiographical. Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of autobiographical literature. At the same time, the most personal book I’ve ever written is about a drone pilot. So you never know what is behind the fictional mask. Maybe all of Shakespeare is secretly autobiographical. It’s just that we have come to expect a one-to-one correspondence.
RA: Yes, I mean you look at books like [Karl Ove Knausgård’s] My Struggle and things like that, and they’re hyper-autobiographical. And yet, women have been writing that way for ages and ages, and that kind of writing was always considered “women’s writing.” That gets upsetting. I’m not sure that’s exactly answering the question, but it nags me. Do you think you’re going to get any backlash for either the lack or proliferation of autobiography readers will see?
MV: Probably. If Weapons of Mass Destruction gains any notoriety, people might want to interview me because I’m a woman who wrote a war novel. Which is fine. Far be it from me to tell people how to respond to my books.
RA: And you’re prepared for it. So when you say the personal came through, was it surprising to you where it arose? Or were you looking to match the story you had in your head with any personal experience your family had had?
MV: No, I was just trying to do justice to what happened over there. In Iraq. At the same time, writing is intrinsically personal, if not autobiographical. Even your dissertation.
RA: That’s really frightening, actually!
MV: It sounds like I’m contradicting myself. One minute I say I can’t stand autobiographical novels, the next I’m saying everything is autobiographical. The point is, it doesn’t need to be explicit. I like literature about things bigger than myself. That’s why I like Postmodernism, especially the more radical strain of Postmodernism which is, above all, a diagnosis of what’s wrong with us, not just me. What’s wrong with the world writ large.
RA: So when you diagnose something as wrong, and you write about it, what are you actually doing? Are you highlighting it? Are you trying to fix it? Is it a prescription in some way?
MV: Definitely trying to fix it. My academic roots are in Modernism, and they’re always trying to fix something, if not everything. In Postmodernism the problem is much bigger, way beyond personal psychology. It’s not about character; it’s about these huge, potentially apocalyptic problems. You can’t be prescriptive, of course, because then it’s a polemic. Fortunately, you don’t have to be. Postmodernism is a very sophisticated discourse, often theoretical, and the answer can be implicit, part of the thematic structure of the work. The trick is to act like you’re just presenting, not resolving, the problem. You and I have often talked about Donald Barthelme, about how he says that he’s not interested in the ineffable. That’s an apt analogy, I think, which is to say that if you’re not providing a remedy, then why bother?
RA: What is the reader then to do with the remedy, if they’ve figured it out or felt it implicitly?
MV: Believe that it’s possible. My students are passionately in love with Modernism. And the reason they love it is that Modernist authors still believed that they could do something to salvage this mess. Modernist aesthetics gave rise to some incredibly beautiful works of literature, to be sure. Beyond mere aesthetics, though, what’s beautiful about them is this residual belief. It’s one of the main reasons I write. It’s an act of faith, no matter how dystopian or irreverent. I want my readers to believe that they can actually do something about what’s wrong.
RA: So a cynic would look at contemporary literature and say it’s just diagnosis. It’s just saying, look at all this stuff that’s wrong, and we can’t do anything about it. Do you feel you’re more of a Modernist in that you’re looking for redemption even in this landscape of absurd war and true meaninglessness? Is there a way to call upon any of the aesthetic strategies of Modernism to find any kind of redemption, political redemption, or spiritual redemption, or personal redemption, whatever it is, do you still feel that that’s possible?
MV: To hell with cynics! (Just kidding.) There’s Postmodernism and there’s Postmodernism, just as there’s Eliot’s traditional Modernism and Djuna Barnes’s more radical Modernism. In other words, Postmodernism has different strategies and the Postmodern writers that I like—DeLillo, Robinson, Ishiguro—don’t believe in meaninglessness. (Not that belief in meaninglessness makes any sense whatsoever.) I mean, look at Never Let Me Go, a novel that says, in so many words, that we’re all a bunch of clones. Or, at the very least, we’re in danger of becoming clones if we don’t stem the tide of dehumanizing technologies. Hasn’t literature always asked not only “who are we?” but also “why are we so fucked up?” Literary apologies—Sidney’s “An Apology for Poetry” comes to mind—were meant to justify the role of literature, which still needs to serve a function, thank you very much. It needs to do something besides sitting there looking pretty. I’ve always believed that. Which is why I don’t like Formalism or New Criticism. Who really cares about scansion, for god sake? The same is true of so-called theory, which is always in the wings of Postmodern literature. If theorists like Baudrillard aren’t providing answers—if his work is really just dystopian—then who gives a damn? Or McLuhan. McLuhan weirdly pretends that there’s something potentially redemptive about technology, even after he anatomizes how numbing it is. Do I believe his conclusions? No. It’s a fairy tale.
RA: And he knows it.
MV: I certainly hope he knows it. In any case, the remedy is in the diagnosis. And if it’s not, the work isn’t interesting to me, which accounts for the fact that Nabokov bores me to tears.
RA: Does this then translate into your interest in autism and the prescription drug taking and the leveling of emotional experience? Is there a way to shock people back into wanting to have emotional experiences or at least not being so afraid of them? Can literature do that?
MV: Yes, yes, and yes. That’s why people read novels, especially in the digital age. To actually feel something in the midst of mind-numbing technology. If autism is partly a cultural phenomenon, we need to look to literature, not just science, to understand it. It’s no accident that people are taking prescription drugs to control their emotions on the one hand, and autistic children seem emotionally distant on the other. They’re like we are, only more so. In The Home Front, I implicitly draw uncanny connections between autism, drone warfare, and the internet. In a word, as I said before, there’s no there there.
RA: Is autism to you then a cultural malady? Or is it an environmental or developmental moment in the brain where the kid goes into this isolated emotional and communicative cave? Where do you think it comes from?
MV: Doctors claim they’ve discovered that brain synapses weed themselves out as we mature. They call it pruning. You started with, say, ten million, and you’re supposed to end up with four. According to this theory, children on the spectrum still have ten, if not more, which means they process too much information. This makes perfect sense, as far as it goes. It’s a biological analogy for the fact that there’s too much stimulus these days, the very thing McLuhan warned would numb our senses and eventually short-circuit our empathy. Kids with autism are like a litmus test. They’re the first responders, so to speak. The mother of the autistic boy in my novel thinks her son is prophetic. Her husband thinks she’s crazy because she’s resorted to the kind of New Age mumbo jumbo that says everything happens for a reason. But she’s right, in a way. Their son is a harbinger of things to come to the extent that we’re all shutting down in self-defense.
RA: So it’s a heightened desire to withdraw and to recharge, and you just can’t if you’re constantly being bombarded. It’s an inability to filter, or manage?
MV: It’s an inability to filter. We do know that. And it’s debilitating. The vaccine theory is also right, if only metaphorically. There’s too much toxicity and it’s making us all sick. Children on the spectrum are the canaries in the coal mine.
RA: Is there a way to escape it?
MV: Surely you know that I’m going to say yes. No Exit is a great play precisely because Sartre told us how to get the hell out of that room.
RA: I thinking back throughout history to all the mathematical geniuses and the crazy artists, was that not possibly diagnosable as autism then?
MV: That goes back to the Brave New York idea, the range of acceptable behavior problem.
RA: You can’t just go off and shut yourself in a tower and do your infinity adding and things and paint about it.
MV: Well, you could. In which case you’d be diagnosed with one of a million new syndromes. The proliferation of fashionable disorders—especially things like ADHD—is just as much about rampant diagnosis as anything else. If you’re really sick, diagnoses are the first step to a cure. If you’re not—if you’re Einstein who has been retroactively diagnosed on the spectrum or Virginia Woolf who is said to have been bipolar—the cure is worse than the malady.
RA: So you think that treatment takes away any of the benefits of that condition?
MV: I want to be very careful addressing this issue. Some people desperately need treatment. But there’s something suspicious about the so-called autism epidemic, let alone ADHD. Why are so many more boys taking Ritalin? We’re pathologizing kids because we don’t want to think about how we no longer treat them like kids. It goes something like this: How can a hyperactive boy compete at prep school and Harvard and Columbia Law without tutors, trust funds, and Ritalin? Good question.
RA: This particular story [The Home Front] and this particular kid, did you see him in your mind before you started writing, or you knew what you wanted him to be interested in, and to be able to do, and the ways in which you wanted him to communicate or not?
MV: I just tried to feel what Max felt. Ironically, he’s the emotional center of the novel, so I started writing from his point of view, the way he tries to hide from everything. It actually felt very familiar.
RA: How do the parents in this story deal with his lack of “normal” communication or empathy? That’s one of the things that gets me about autism, that there’s a lack of display of empathy. That they don’t appear to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure.
MV: I think they feel too much. Max finds his mother’s face particularly hard to bear because it conveys too much emotional information. In turn, his mother retreats into New Age la-la land because she can’t bear the weight of her son’s diagnosis. Meanwhile, his father is flying drones over Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away. The whole family is missing in action, not just Max.
RA: And that’s the wrong way to go about it, you think?
MV: There’s a kind of intolerance in their response to Max’s diagnosis. His parents think they’re doing everything humanly possible to cure him, but there’s something cruel about their obsession with normalcy. Max is a person, after all, not just a bundle of symptoms. There’s somebody in there. Just because he doesn’t fit into a particular range of acceptable behavior doesn’t mean he can’t be happy, whatever that means.
RA: It’s like telling a fish, “You can’t possibly be happy, because you don’t have legs!”
MV: I like that —
RA: So then prescription drugs, you are not only criticizing the use of prescription drugs by mentally different people, but even for small deviations off of “normal.” Any tiny little deviation is bad.
MV: Exactly. Even depression and anxiety. As if anxiety were unnatural. So much for the anxiety of influence.
RA: Is this behavior unique to a particular segment of society?
MV: Yes and no. It’s worse in the upper echelons of the economic spectrum, which is why I set Brave New York on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. While I was in graduate school, I taught at a prep school where I was obliged to engage in child abuse. Gilded child abuse, but abuse just the same. Kids had umpteen hours of homework every night, which meant they never got enough sleep. They were led to believe their lives would be over if they didn’t get into an appropriately fancy college. Then they started giving the hyper kids Ritalin. And I said to myself, I’m outta here. I didn’t expect to stay anyway because I was getting my Ph.D. I thought I could dodge the bullet by teaching in college. Good luck. This kind of abuse has recently infiltrated higher education. They’re starting to drug college students the same way they drug high school kids, policing them in the same insidious ways.
RA: “They” meaning…?
MV: The powers that be.
RA: I mean, is it student services, health services, the deans?
MV: The entire apparatus. The entire administration, including the government’s Title IX policies, which expect professors and even fellow students to report aberrant behavior. It’s gotten to the point where not policing aberrant behavior is potentially illegal, let alone the behavior itself. It’s their way or the highway. Take this drug, or you’ll be expelled.
RA: Expelled? For violent behavior, or for being distracting?
MV: Watch your step, Rachel. The more access you have to privilege the more prescriptive it’s going to be.
RA: It’s about maintaining privilege, saying, “You must go to Dalton, you must succeed at Dalton, you must go to Columbia, you must succeed at Columbia to maintain whatever kind of privilege you’ve been given.”
MV: And you’ll live happily ever after. How depressing.
RA: It certainly looks very shiny. But the ones who break out become what?
MV: Being preternaturally happy is overrated. But what happens, unfortunately, is that college kids start thinking that if they’re anxious they must be sick. If they get depressed, they start popping pills without figuring out the root cause.
RA: What about the level of anxiety that gets so deep that you can’t function?
MV: That’s different. But I was talking to my mother about it. And my sister and my friends and everyone else I could get my hands on. The general consensus is, that when you’re in your twenties, you’re crazy as a loon. Okay, maybe you weren’t that crazy. But the rest of us were.
RA: I don’t think it was great that I wasn’t crazy. I would have liked to have gone a little crazier. I think it would have been healthier.
MV: Well, there you go. My mother told me that when she was in college the same thing happened. Half the girls in her sorority were completely insane. Wild mood swings. Anorexia. Substance abuse. Guess what? They were twenty.
RA: So it’s not a generational thing; is it a late-twentieth century thing then?
MV: Admittedly, there’s more pressure now. Way too much pressure on kids way too young. So instead of saying, “This is child abuse,” we give them pills. By the time they get to college they’re either so anxious or so drugged up they can’t move. Take your pick.
RA: So should anything have been done about your mother’s sorority sisters?
MV: There’s lots of ways to help people without messing with their brain chemistry. If you ask me, prescription drugs should be reserved for extreme cases, not just teens or twentysomethings acting out or finding their emotional sea legs. We need to be careful not to hold an entire generation hostage for the sake of a handful of potentially dangerous cases, especially when colleges seem more concerned with liability than actual mental health. Admittedly, there’s more suicide now than there was in my mother’s sorority days. But it’s often due to drug imbalances. Here again, the question of whether the cure is worse than the malady hasn’t been sufficiently addressed.
RA: Seems a little chicken-and-egg though. Is it the pressure that gets them to take drugs or is it the drugs that make them feel more under pressure?
MV: It’s the proliferation of diagnoses. Narrowing the spectrum of acceptable behavior. People have the right to learn to negotiate their emotions. Their gifts as well as their defects. Every single person I value most, including you, had the luxury of ten years to work through their shit. That’s what our twenties were all about. With me it took way longer than that. Thank god I was given the chance to find myself, as we used to say when conformity was still a four letter word. I’m assuming you can tell from the title of Brave New York that the kid in that novel wasn’t so lucky. Welcome to the new millennium.
RA: Do you have a next book in mind about these problems, or do you have a new topic? There’s always a new war!
MV: I’m working with a visual artist on a book about waste. Images, of course, but also the very idea of waste. It’s just a euphemism for something that doesn’t exist, and neither will we if we keep pretending we can throw things away with impunity. What goes around comes around.
RA: All those floating trash islands that are huge. And you just think, what?! I was thinking the next big thing could be this religious relativism, you know, ISIS and Islamophobia and the spectrum of one religion against a huge political ideology. Please tackle that. Make it so. Out of curiosity, are you writing any short stories, poetry?
MV: No. I don’t like short projects.
RA: That’s interesting too, because that goes against the ADHD thing. You can get stuck in, you don’t bounce around from thing to thing. I admire that.
MV: Somehow I find it hard to believe. After all, you’re a poet.