By Jerry L. Wheeler
Peter Dube is a big man in terms of stature as well as ideas—and his talent is gigantic enough to make even the grandest vision a reality. This Montreal-based author, editor and critic of art and queer culture has brought his visions to life in such books as At the Bottom of the Sky and Hovering World. His latest novel, Subtle Bodies (Lethe Press) is a highly readable look at the Surrealist movement as seen through the eyes of one of its prime exponents, author Rene Crevel.
But Crevel’s life was only a springboard for Dube’s imagination. “I wouldn’t want anyone to read Subtle Bodies as a representative or reliable biography,” states Dube, “because it’s not one. Some of the events and the basic timeline are reasonably close to Crevel’s actual life but many things are simply made up. I wrote a fiction about his life, in order to explore things I was interested in: how life and art overlap, for example, the inner drive to pursue vision and the ramifications of that drive, the dynamics of friendship… a whole bunch of stuff that isn’t biographical data about Crevel the man, but that struck me as valuable in terms of looking at what goes into making the narrative of a life.”
The blurring of lines between a real life and the hybrid Dube achieves is a tricky balance and not without its problems. “There are really two big problems with “fictional biography” as a project,” he explains. “One is that you have to do a lot of research in order to create any credibility, even if you don’t use most of it. So I would advise anyone considering it to make sure the subject is one they are passionate about and fascinated by. In my case, this was happily not a problem.
“The other issue has to do with readers’ expectations. When a fiction is about an ‘actual person’ there’s a strange tension in how readers approach it, one rooted in what in the book might be ‘true,’ or not; did incident X really happen or didn’t it? Of course,given the number of questionable memoirs published in recent years I understand some of the nervousness.That understanding, however, shouldn’t be taken to mean I have any reticence about writers playing with or blurring the lines between genres. Quite the contrary, I love it and want more! It’s simply to underline that even when in hot pursuit of the experimental or formal innovation,writing, and especially story telling, remains above all else a social act. And that always involves ethical and political considerations that need to be accounted for.”
Authors often find that in the process of writing, their project changes. Dube, however, didn’t have that experience with Subtle Bodies. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the overall structure was framed to some extent by Crevel’s actual biography. So most of the fussing and changing and morphing had to do with the order of scenes, the character’s visions and other less overarching things. I did have a few elements in the original concept that fell by the wayside while the book was working itself out, but when I compare that to the countless rewrites and re-creations I usually go through, it was relatively straightforward, which is not to say that it was easy.”
But Crevel is not the only ‘real life’ figure in Subtle Bodies. Andre Breton, one of the founders of the movement is an important character in the book as well, but also one of the most homophobic.
“I have a serious love/hate thing with him,” Dube says. “The man was a mass of contradictions. He was a political radical who was also very reactionary about certain questions. Every account of him I’ve read indicates he had an enormous heart, and yet he could turn on his friends so quickly. There’s no question that he was a visionary and brilliant, but in some ways his prejudices have stained the movement and the perception of it. That damned homophobia… and lets not overlook the hideous sexism! He seems like a pretty complex, and not always agreeable guy… But, in fairness, and though nothing is especially explicit, there are indications that he may have wised up somewhat later in life.”
Such contradictions are especially odd when you consider that the Surrealist movement was consciously based on an outsider mentality whose ultimate aim was to create a myth around itself. Could any group these days create a myth around itself, or was the Surrealist movement unique in that respect?
“…the surrealists were a particular case in this regard,” Dube contends. “They were openly – and self-consciously –looking for a myth, and would say so in their publications. In the end, I think they created a new myth in quite unintended ways, and through the action of time. In the years since it emerged, Surrealism has become a kind of psychic template of the ‘avant-garde group.’ And it’s a template that has been duplicated,consciously or unconsciously, by many others, including all the passion,in-fighting and schism it involved. Even more importantly, and for both better and worse, in the coinage “surreal” they contributed a new concept and a new word to world culture (however misinterpreted it may often be)… that sudden glimpse of the other possibilities inhabiting the world. Not many groups have done as much. As to present-day groups – other than contemporary surrealism – with both similar ambitions and similar possibilities, it’s quite difficult to say. It’s a tougher job now wha twith all the Post-Modern splintering of culture going on.”
Both Subtle Bodies and Hovering World are relatively short books despite the large concepts they contain. Was this a conscious move or just what the stories called for? “Although it was to a great extent just a question of it being the right length for the stories being told,” says Dube, “in retrospect there were other factors at play too. One of the things I want from the writing I do (and the writing I read, for that matter) is a certain intensity of language. For me, that’s absolutely essential. And for a long time I thought intensity of that sort couldn’t be sustained over a longer piece. More recently, I’ve reconsidered that, and have figured out how to sustain it over greater lengths.I feel like I have it down now, and the novel I just signed for is, in fact,three times as long as my earlier books – with no discernible loss of intensity, I think. Of course, now that it’s done, I am taking a little breakand have gone back to working on shorter pieces for a bit.”
The intensity of Dube’s writing can be easily traced to his influences. “The fact is I read a lot, and all of it is in some way or another grist for the mill. Still, the key historical figures might include (besides the surrealists, obviously) folks like Jean Genet for the glittering prose and deliberateness of his project; William Burroughs for just about everything, the British author Angela Carter also for just about everything(and who knew a thing or two about myths too); Paul Bowles for the precision and the fearlessness. Among more recent authors, I have to acknowledge the ‘New Narrative’ writers(including Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy, among others.) They have been so important to me for their amazing bending of both genre and the author function, their focus on language, the way they use sexuality as material, the sophistication of their response to theory while still holding to the narrative, or story-telling, impulse as community-based and political…and just for being so damn smart. Of course, what’s left out of this list are a number of friends in my immediate circle. I talk to them about writing all the time so their influence is enormous, but impossible to quantify.”
Such a rich and diverse group of influences have given Dube a rich world view he expresses not only in his fiction but in his criticism of art and queer life. His take on gay marriage is particularly interesting, even though he was reluctant to share it at first.
“All right, Jerry,” Dube wrote,“you’re just not gonna let me off the hook are you? You’re determined to get me into trouble. Well fine. Lets take an example that’s been in the news a lot recently: the whole same-sex marriage thing. But first, let me be clear off the top – of course, no group of consenting adults should see their primary relationship denied rights and privileges that are blithely accorded to another such group. That’s discriminatory and therefore unacceptable. Only a fool or a bigot would deny it.”
“That said,” he continues, “if you look for the roots of gay liberation as a movement you’ll find them tangled up in the fertile ground of the counter-culture(s) and the attendant radical questioning of all kinds of political and personal institutions…among them traditional couplehood, and – yes – marriage. Many of the folks that started this movement were ready – and eager – to search out and create different modalities of relationship. It was a vital, innovative movement, one that wanted to challenge or change institutions and see if we couldn’t come up with something better.
“How did we go from there to clamouring to be included in a cookie-cutter, deeply flawed institution like marriage? And lets face it, marriage isn’t all that successful a thing; its historical origins and function are politically suspect and in its contemporary iteration, among other problems, it ends not in a lifetime of happy tax and next of kin benefits, but in divorce half – or slightly more than half,depending on the study you choose – of the time. Would you buy a toaster-oven that only worked fifty percent of the time? Not likely. Then why would one want to anchor the most important relationship(s) in one’s life in something that rickety? Surely we can dream up some kind of improvement? Where is the debate for the enlargement of the range of relationships accorded legal recognition?Or the right to choose and define new kinds? And once again, I am all for leveling the playing field when it comes to the various privileges accorded primary relationships. I just think there are more creative and liberational ways to achieve that end.”
And if there’s one thing Dube is acquainted with, it’s creativity. Having photographed angels in Hovering World and explored the Surrealist movement in Subtle Bodies, what’s next on his agenda?
“Actually, I just signed a contract for a new novel that’s scheduled to appear in Spring 2012. The one-line teaser I’ve been using to describe it is that it’s ‘a literary noire narrative about an unhappy academic, getting high, the collapse (or explosion) of language, and a Symbolist street gang.’ I’m also working on a book-length sequence of prose poems and thinking about pulling together a volume of essays from the art writing I’ve done over the last few years.”
Clearly, Dube is a busy man—but not too busy to leave us with a few parting words about Subtle Bodies. “I’d like for readers to find some pleasure in the text. Pleasure is a vital thing to me in art and the way we approach it and I often find that goes unspoken of in our rush to talk about the ideas,strategies, mechanics, themes and other elements in a book (or a film, or a painting, or a song….). Beyond that, I hope it does prompt questions about the way we shape a life, and about the relationship of lived experience to the stories we tell about it, and storytelling more generally. How—and why—that’s important.”
For more information about Peter Dube and his work, visit his website at www.peterdube.com.