Why did you take Thomas Mann’s The
Magic Mountain for the starting point of your
White: I'm an artist who believes
in the idea that "what I need will come to
me." I was reading The Magic Mountain
simply because it was one of those big famous books
that I hadn't yet read. Slowly, the idea grew that
I could use the ground situation for my own purposes.
Some critics and readers treat my novel as an opportunity
to compare the two. For me, it's just material.
It was just useful. Nothing more than that.
On the surface, The
Magic Mountain and America’s Magic
Mountain differ. Mann’s book is exceedingly
big and slow-paced, and his writing voice might
be called ‘stately omniscience.’ America’s
Magic Mountain is short, by comparison, and its
voice is quicker. Which of Mann’s themes and
forms did you retain?
Not many, really. Just the idea of a naive
young man going to a place for the ill and discovering
that he was ill himself. I was actually thinking
just as much of Henry James' notion of the vessel
of consciousness. I wanted to write a book in which
an innocent (or empty) consciousness was filled
with four well-defined but malicious voices. Hans
Castorp is socialized into a toxic situation. I
wanted to try to create the psychological reality
of growing up damaged.
Is the culturally
sheltered protagonist of Mann’s novel, Hans
Castorp, more relevant as a character to Americans
now than he has been in the past?
What's awful to think in any historical
period in the West is what it means to grow up into
destructive situations. Paul Goodman called it "growing
up absurd." Theodor Adorno called it "damage."
For me, being socialized into our culture is like
being poisoned. Hence my interest in toxins, alcoholic
ends with Hans Castorp going back down to the ‘flat’
world to see battle in the First World War. Why
did you send your own Hans to his chosen fate?
My Hans, unhappily, has to stay where he
is. He's a mate. One of the gang. Glug glug.
Finally, two related
questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected'
writer—someone they think has been unfairly
ignored by the general reading public. Do you have
one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated
writer working today?
Well, it may be obvious, but Gilbert Sorrentino
is for my money our greatest living novelist, with
the most consistent and accomplished "body
of work." And yet he's practically unpublishable
for commercial purposes. Bookstores can't give his
books away. Still, as Haydn said upon hearing Handel's
"Messiah" for the first time in London,
"He's the master of us all."