Robert Lopez is the author of two novels, Kamby Bolongo Mean River and Part of the World. His fiction has appeared in dozens of publications. He teaches at The New School, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. Sam Lipsyte describes Kamby Bolongo Mean River as “an original and fearless fiction. It bears genetic traces of Beckett and Stein, but Robert Lopez’s powerful cadences and bleak, joyful wit are all his own.”
Michael Kimball: Why didn’t you use any commas in Kamby Bolongo Mean River?
Robert Lopez: I always start with language. It became clear right away that this narrator’s voice, his manner of speech was not at all measured or ordered. The second sentence — “I will say the hello how are you …” presented itself as one uninterrupted phrase, as opposed to “… the hello, how are you …” There was an urgency to his language, the syntax and diction and lack of punctuation all came together at once. After that there were a number of places where commas would ordinarily go, but it didn’t fit his voice or the tone of the piece.
Kimball: I loved the use of “the” in the bit you cite above and the way that usage recurs through the novel. But the lack of punctuation, it makes me think of some of the other constraints involved in the novel — everything from the fact that the narrator can only receive phone calls (and not make them) to the narrator’s limitations on understanding what is happening to him and around him. Could you talk about these constraints a bit?
Lopez: The world and the people in the world have always baffled me and I imagine that comes through in the work. It seems as though the narrators I’ve spent time with have a difficult time understanding what has happened to them and why it has happened. That the narrator of Kamby Bolongo Mean River is confined to a room with only a telephone that cannot dial out seems appropriate. I suppose most of us have felt like prisoners for one reason or another at one time or another. So far I’ve not been interested in the workplace as a setting for fiction, the office as prison, so to speak. I guess this reminds me of an argument between Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost. One insulted the other saying something like, “The trouble with you is you write about things.” The other replied, “Your trouble is you write about bric-a-brac.” Of course, they were both right and both wrong and both full of shit. So, some things interest me and others not so much. Perhaps that the narrator of KBMR wound up in a room with only a telephone speaks to the constraints of my imagination.
Kimball: Speaking of imagination, the narrator draws his life, his skewed memory of it, in stick figures on the walls of the room in which he is confined. How did that become part of the novel and why stick figures and why does he mostly draw naked?
Lopez: I suppose I’ve practiced what Donald Barthelme said about collage. I’ve mined older stories that didn’t quite work for material in both KBMR and Part of the World. So, I once had a story where a woman drew stick figures in a log cabin she inherited from her husband. (This part of the story was also resurrected in KBMR.) I imagine, for the narrator of KBMR, getting to tell his story this way was a substitute for any real contact with the outside world. The drawings are proof he was there, that he went through this experience. I saw it like cave paintings, which is why he drew in stick figures, which seem primitive to me. And all I’m capable of drawing myself, which is neither here nor there, but true nonetheless. I tend not to analyze why characters do what they do while I’m working. I trust whatever comes out, perhaps to a fault. That said, that he drew the stick figures naked makes sense. You could say he was rebelling against the uniforms he was issued and you could also say it’s indicative of wanting to escape, to be free again. None of this occurred to me as I was working on it, but as long as the action/language makes sense on an intuitive level I leave well enough alone. It’s only afterward, post-mortem, that I recognize connections and motivations and metaphors, any thing having to do with interpretation.
Kimball: Let’s talk about the revision process then. I’m especially curious for a novel like Kamby Bolongo Mean River with its non-traditional structure, all of its short paragraphs and line spaces. How much was moved around, rewritten, cut, etc.?
Lopez: KBMR started as a ten-page short story. I’d completed it and was pleased. A year or so later, I opened the story back up and was intrigued by the voice and thought I should see what else was there. Another ten-or-so pages came out, but I had to put it away for another year when life intervened. The next time I sat down the pages starting pouring out. I wrote the rest of the novel pretty much straight through, in one summer long breath. I always revise as I go, try to make sure every sentence is as it should be before moving on to the next. With KBMR, there wasn’t that much work to be done after the initial composition. It more or less came fully formed. My first novel took years and years of tinkering and revising and shuffling pages and scenes around. I suppose I was lucky with KBMR.
Kimball: The writing process, there were multiple times in the novel when I felt as if the novel worked as a figuration about writing or, sometimes, a figuration about reading. For instance, on page 11, the narrator says this: “What you have to do is understand how people use words and go from there.” Then, in the next paragraph, he says this: “My problem is I think about one word for too long.” Then, four paragraphs later, this: “The sound between words can be great or small or great and small at the same time.” And on page 64, the narrator says this: “I could go the rest of my life without words and be fine.” Was all that writing/reading commentary just going on in my head or were you after something specific there?
Lopez: I wasn’t consciously trying to comment on writing or reading or the impossibility of such endeavors, at least in a meta-fictional sense. Certainly the narrator discusses his difficulties with language, which can be interpreted any number of ways. And I suppose this difficulty with language is a recurring theme for me, but it’s not something I “try” to do or tried to do in KBMR. I have done a few meta-fictional stories where the process of putting it together was part of the narrative. Language is always a big part of subject matter for me, it seems. The Beckett quote – “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” – is entirely accurate for me. Expression often, if not always, seems like folly, yet it feels necessary at the same time. And yet, “I can go the rest of my life without words and be fine.” feels just as true to me. Certainly, this is always in my head.
Kimball: Last question: I’ve been thinking about the connections between fiction and poker, and I know you play, so what do you think: Is the mind that writes novels suitable for a winning poker player? Is there any angle there?
Lopez: I would think the mind that writes novels is suitable for a winning poker player, but unfortunately not any more so than other disciplines, lawyering, banking, teaching, etc. Certainly writing a novel takes patience and a sense of timing and so does poker. Understanding patterns and psychology is necessary for both, too. This is an interesting question. I think further research is necessary.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now out in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project-Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)-and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).