Reading: Mark Mayer, Aerialists
Prairie Lights — Wednesday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m.
Mark Mayer, graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and inaugural Robert P. Dana Emerging Writer fellow at Cornell College, will read from his debut collection of short stories, Aerialists, at Prairie Lights on Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. I had the privilege of talking to him, recently returned from Paris and on the cusp of his book tour, and found him to be as warm and humorous in conversation as his prose would allow one to hope.
Aerialists is a rare work of fiction that hides its strengths. It is not through a false modesty or self-doubt but because it has a confident grace in the stories it displays — like precious gems, polished and cut — trusting the reader to explore them. In this way, each story (and also the assembled collection) is almost audacious in the subtle joys of discovery that it allows. There’s a deserved pride, shorn of the pretense of arrogance, that shines through with a dazzling effectiveness that lingers long after the covers close.
Structurally, the stories hinge around the theme of a circus — the titular aerialist joining an elephant, clown, bearded woman, strong woman and others in an intricately carved menagerie. Collecting these interconnected tales under this title, rather than one more evocative of a big tent, is wise: The collection is less a celebration of spectacle than a work of weightlessness. Each narrative astutely defies its own gravity allowing brilliantly constructed, generous insights into the human condition to be offered gently rather then ponderously. The deftness with which Mayer approaches these subjects is matched by lean, supple, flexible prose.
Aerialists is very much rooted in the American literature tradition, hearkening back to the grotesques of Sherwood Anderson’s Weinsberg, Ohio in a way that’s just as compelling and just as compassionate toward each character. The narrator clearly loves the characters conveyed, presenting each with a level of honesty and clarity that the odd, flawed individuals lack for themselves. The stories are brilliant without being overly brainy: There’s a modesty to the writing that allows each aptly chosen word and turn of phrase to remain disguised as mere description until a second reading.
Certain sentences, however, refuse to be contained — and they are moments of transparent joy wherein the ways that the words connect the plot, larger thematic concepts, characters and a profound truth about being human coalesce and land within a short and seemingly casual moment. Although the story “Aerialists” deals with pilots instead of a trapeze act, the experience is far more the latter than the former.
Like Weinsburg, the stories remain distinct and separate — but haunt each other. No one story is necessary to the whole, but each contributes to the collection in a way that allows readers to understand new depths of the preceding elements. Despite my growing appreciation for what came before, however, I repeatedly found that each story just completed had earned the title of “favorite.”
Each story is also, in a way, about writing, reading or acts of interpretation that culminates in “The Ringmaster,” the concluding story which serves less as a caboose to the book than an engine that points in reverse, making you want to do nothing more than start the process of reading it over again. Each story contains a set of small deceptions and intrigues written so thoughtfully and honestly that whimsy meshes with hard reality. That Mayer accomplishes this in tidy, compact prose is truly a marvel to experience.
But it is Mayer’s ability to invest graciously in the human experience that makes the book exceptional, rather than just a technical marvel (which it also is). The skill, care and concern with which he amplifies the details of the characters and their lives becomes its own lesson for how you can extend such grace to yourself. Any one story, as well as the set, provides a performance of empathy lacking in books that remain smugly satisfied with depicting clever, disillusioned characters. The book is earnest in presenting earnest characters, bringing to life those who would otherwise be stuck in the margins.
There’s no story about a magician in the book — it is the act that is performed throughout the course of the book, rather than explicitly explored. Like the best magicians, however, Mayer’s stories do not rely on a sudden concluding twist so much as allow one to acclimate toward, savor, appreciate and then experiencing an end that in its actuality is far more delicious than one would have expected.
Aerialists is a work of grace, joy, and compassion that shows the humanity beneath the oddities at the heart of each character. In it, you show a great deal of thoughtfulness about the human experience in ways both divulged in and replicated by the narrator’s description of the Ringmaster’s models. To what do you attribute having become such a thoughtful, caring observer? And, why circuses?
Thinking about emotion is how I learned to write plot. I could never write a story that followed a plot arc the way you’re taught. It felt like contrivance, like I was just throwing more drama into the pot, until I learned to think about plot as the work of wiggling deeper into character. It doesn’t matter what action you pack into a story — explode as many racecars as you want, it won’t be interesting, not really, until it’s observing and revealing something about your characters.
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Before I wrote this short story collection, I worked on this novel I ended up abandoning, an actual circus book with lots of spectacle and a lot of language play. It was a doomed project: I was trying to be impressive. Fun as it was to write about the circus, it started to feel bloodless — I was holding your eyes but not thinking or feeling deeply.
Through lots of revision, I discovered that what’s meaningful for me about the circus isn’t the show, but the mythology — the way that the circus thinks about the aspects of the human character that it presents in exaggeration. Marilynne Robinson was the first person to use that word — mythology — to describe this project. These stories interpret the myths of the circus.
I don’t like going to the real circus so much — it’s kind of a brutal affair.
Your academic writing seems just as brilliant as your fiction — and strongly interrelated. For example, in “Wilderness Stations,” available in LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory you describe “the instant and the ‘always already’ — I argue that Munro’s narrative paradoxes, like Althusser’s, explore the feeling of our continual interpellation into identities that are not freely ours to determine.” This paradox seems at the heart of almost each of your fictional explorations (from different angles), whether the Twin, the Clown’s son, or the Ringmaster. Can you discuss how your theoretical explorations have served as a springboard for your creativity? Do you see these types of production as different explorations of similar subject matter or do they satisfy different parts of yourself?
Academic insight relies on a certain creative reflex. For me, it isn’t about wringing Munro or Althusser for a thesis statement. Instead, I’m feeling my way into it, the way I feel my way into my own stories. But I’m not sure it goes the other way around. If I were try to approach characters and character experience with Althusser in mind, I might be doomed.
That’s an odd paper you cite — but it comes out of me being a passionate reader and being drawn to both Althusser and Munro and thinking they’re both brilliant storytellers in their own ways.
Another thing that seems exceptional about this collection is how the stories provide snapshots of narrative construction. My personal favorite was the labyrinthine mathematics of the infinite — which seems to describe love, communism, family and storytelling — at the heart of “Solidarity Forever,” (although you can see this dance with unreality, appearing in different ways, throughout the book). What is your favorite narrative model, and why?
I don’t know that I have a favorite or even that I necessarily think about them as models. In “The Ringmaster,” the premise is that the aging bachelor protagonist has an intricate toy train that he’s built and doesn’t know how to give away. He describes it as “the smallest problem in the world.” He knows that his big problem shouldn’t matter. I like that as a narrative model — short fiction takes up something of no seeming significance and makes it crisis worthy. It’s the smallest problem in the world, in “Twin,” that the Maple misses an imagined friendship. It’s the smallest problem in the world that Rico can’t remain friends with his mom’s ex.
These stories often look away from what’s most obviously dramatic. “Twin” should be about the father’s suicide attempt. “The Clown” should be about murder, not friendship. “Solidarity Forever” should be about death, not fractions. But I find myself fascinated with that space adjacent to the “real” story.
Can you describe the process of writing one of the sentences that appears in the book? Like the one near the end of the collection, from “The Ringmaster”: “Real life had happened in this modeled room, and there was no sign left.” In just a few words, the sentence essentially sums up the paradox of the character — and it represents so much of what you say about character and narrative throughout the book. Part of the brilliance of your writing is creating stories that allow such sentences based on sentences that allow such stories. What’s the process? What were your influences? How many times have you read Winesburg, Ohio, with its parade of grotesques? What gives rise to this collection? And who are your model sentence writers?
How do you describe how to write a sentence? It’s a beguiling question. All I can say is I’ve been working on this book for so long that it’s far smarter than me — it’s a collaboration with me last year, me six years ago, me years before that. With each return, you get new insights for what you’re doing and the language grows wiser.
That sentence — I had a professor who said, “If you thought at all about what a motel room is, you’d never sleep there.” I was thinking about that. I was also thinking about Steven Millhauser’s 1983 essay in Grand Street about the fascination of the miniature and his story “In the Reign of Harad IV.” That was a great influence, too.
I did teach Winesburg when I was in Iowa — well spotted. It’s interesting to bring up the grotesque. Part of what the circus allowed me to do is pass off characters that were a bit too much, more than realistic but less than caricature. One of the things I may have borrowed from Winesburg is a compassion for those of us who don’t fit our places, who bulge out a bit, aren’t of the right scale.
I’ve mentioned Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and Marilynne Robinson [as models] in other interviews. Leonard Michaels is also a hero for me. He has an incredible sense of the kinetic energy in language. Early in his career he wrote these zooming, high-velocity subway cars of sentences, but then toward the end his life he began to slow himself down. In his late stories, about the mathematician Nachmann, you can feel the kinetic energy shifting into a strange potential energy. I don’t know how he does it so I can’t really claim him as a model.
Looking back on your time in Iowa — both at the Workshop as well as teaching at Cornell — what are the two or three things that you think will continue to push you beyond the story that you inhabit, as both character and narrator?
The very first thing that Marilynne Robinson said in my very first day of workshop is that we should find the place where our sensitivity to language and our sensitivity to experience collaborate. That was the first thing I heard and maybe the most important thing I learned at Iowa. I’ve been thinking since then about what a sensitivity to experience means, about what sights [and] sounds have a salience for one mind that they don’t have for another, about how we learn to attune to what jumps out from the world for us, as opposed to the next person.
The workshop was just a transformative experience and a dream come true for me as a writer. The level of playful, artistic friendship that I found with my cohort — I can only compare it to kindergarten. We got along, made our stuff, and we were happy to be there.
I loved Iowa City the city also — my secret hangout when I wanted to get out of the house to write but didn’t want to run into anyone was the Mercy hospital cafeteria: cheap coffee, soft serve, long hours and the ghost of Denis Johnson in the halls.