"Purity is a Weird, Dangerous Word" Jean Marc Ah-Sen, Emily Anglin, Devon Code, & Lee Henderson's "Rock Band" Literary Experiment Fascinates
Coach House Books has been known for their innovative approach to writing and publishing for decades, but one of their newest projects is amongst the most playful and exciting literary experiments to come out of CanLit in some time.
Bringing together four acclaimed authors, Disintegration in Four Parts asked each writer to respond on the theme of "purity". The project is the brainchild of Jean Marc Ah-Sen, who wrote one of the four "parts" himself and invited fellow authors Emily Anglin, Devon Code, and Lee Henderson to join him.
The four conceptual interpretations are different in style and content, but all are arresting and thought-provoking, and the pieces harmonize together in a fascinating way. From literary feuds to missing twins and more, Disintegration in Four Parts isn't only a wildly fun and successful experiment, it's timely and urgent storytelling.
All four Disintegration authors join us today to discuss the project. They tell us about the classic '60s film with a structure that inspired the collaboration, why they were all equally eager to work with one another, and how they engaged with their characters (from a fiction self to a famous artist) to explore a complex topic.
This book represents such a creative new approach to a collection of writing. What attracted you to being part of the project?
Jean Marc Ah-Sen:
I wanted to work with Lee, Emily, and Devon. I hold their books in high regard and thought they would push me to work harder. Having a kind of closed circuit where you’re all barrelling towards the same deadline keeps your nose to the grindstone, at least in my case. A big inspiration for the book was the 1963 omnibus film Ro.Go.Pa.G., which paired Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, and Gregoretti together—cinema as event. I thought we could reproduce some of that energy. I liked the challenge of writing something that would be collaborative and autonomous at the same time, but in the process go a little beyond the scope of what an anthology entailed.
I’ve always loved using conceptual prompts to guide the writing process. I love that, paradoxically, placing conceptual parameters on the creative process can open up imaginative possibility. When I learned about the idea for the book, I was excited by the potential of combining different responses by different writers to the same idea. It felt like an experiment that could have such wildly different potential results.
I was also definitely attracted to the idea of breaking up the daunting and dominant monolith of the novel into smaller units, with multiple writers contributing to the final work—from a formal perspective, and also from a practical and material perspective. I’ve typically written short stories as my primary form, and am currently writing my first novel, a much different endeavour, I’m learning—so writing a novella is a nice in-between space length-wise.
And of course the possibility of writing something alongside Jean Marc Ah-Sen, who conceived the project, was really exciting to me; having read his writing, I knew how experimental he is with language and form. I really admire his playful engagements with literary history. I knew that whatever emerged from this project would be really inventive and interesting.
My last book was a novel I spent a lot of time working on independently. I was immediately drawn to the idea of writing something shorter but still relatively substantial and doing so in a collaborative context with other writers whose work I admire. It’s a good feeling having all our work come out together in the same volume on the same theme but with completely different styles and approaches. I like the strangeness and daring of it.
No way I would pass up the chance to work with these amazing writers and everyone at Coach House Press. Ah-Sen asked me and I didn’t hesitate saying yes. Felt like the closest I’ve come to joining a rock band.
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You were asked to consider the idea and theme of purity when writing your piece. What did purity as a concept mean to you when you started writing? And did your perspective or focus change through the writing of the piece?
The concept of purity isn’t relevant anymore; its categories are routinely disturbed by modern thought. I wanted to address this through dialectics and schisms within art movements—purity in an aesthetic sense where you consider a critical starting point that gets “adulterated” as bifurcations occur. Dialectical materialism meets transcendental homelessness—“dialectical homelessness,” to coin a phrase. The perspective does shift to a consideration of politics, but I think the overlap is inevitable: whether it’s publishing or statecraft, there’s the cult of personality, the overemphasis on charisma, and the disquieting current of anti-intellectualism, among other things.
When I began writing, I focused on the idea of purity within an emotional relationship shared by two people. The kind of authentic connections—like shared memories, love, or grief—that join two people spiritually, almost causing them to merge, and how those connections survive under the alienating social and economic pressures of late capitalism.
I was really interested in the part of the prompt that asked us to consider purity as created by “resemblance and disavowal.” I like the implied paradox embedded in the idea of resembling and disavowing something at the same time. I was in a period of noticing how capitalism has a pattern of replacing things by mimicking and then displacing them.
I’ve always been interested in the doppelgänger and the doubling of characters in literature, so I wondered if I could explore this pattern of doubling and replacing through a story focused on doubled characters. Twinship in my story became a symbol of purity—an authentic, almost symbiotic connection between two sisters whose relationship is subject to the temptations and pressures of a world of profit-seeking and illusions.
In editing I realized that the theme was latent throughout the work and there were a few places I could tease it out and develop it further. The trick is to do this without overdoing it. I think that the process of writing in a sense can be thought of the process at trying to get at a sense of purity of idea or narrative. This can guide the work to an extent but in the end it’s never really fully achieved and probably shouldn’t be, or else the results might not be very interesting or alive on the page.
Purity is a weird, dangerous word. As a catalyst for art, the idea of purity offered a lot of stark contradictions. Kurt Schwitters always struck me as something like a pure artist, entirely committed to art and entirely in love with art, incredibly talented and sophisticated, ahead of his time and maybe still ahead of our time. One place where Schwitters innovated was in the medium of collage – he turned trash into art. But the Nazis constantly sought to represent Schwitters as an example of their moral opposite. To their construct of purity, he was an example of decadence, his ideas an adulteration, they called his art degenerate, and reduced him, as a person, to trash.
Each of the characters in these pieces engages with or represents the conceptual exploration in a unique way. Can you tell us a bit about your main character(s) and why you found them interesting to explore?
My main character is a fictionalized version of myself. Writers in my experience are nervy about how they are perceived and go to great lengths to present themselves favourably. My piece is a send-up to amour-propre and the ridiculous things authors that are all wax and no wick get up to (If a novelist bares their soul, but doesn’t pay homage to a bellwether, will their bank account make a sound?). The Jean Marc Ah-Sen that appears in my segment is putting together a writing manual that elucidates a literary movement he co-created, but it starts to sound like a pyramid scheme the more he delves into its particulars. I imagine my story to be what Pygmalion could look like if it was written by Flann O’Brien—sometimes you get an idea that’s a little frivolous, but you still want to chew on that bone for as long as possible...
My main character, Julia, is twinned most obviously with her literal, biological twin, Amber, but the first half of the novella sees her become twinned with someone else—Kim, the CEO of the architectural firm where she works. I found this interesting to explore because Julia is less than reliable, and I like unreliable narrators. As I revised, I shifted the degree to which Julia began to resemble or become twinned with her boss—becoming empty, cold, and withdrawn into a world of commoditized creativity. She vacillates between this and the deeper, more authentic bond with her sister.
It was interesting to play with those twinnings or doublings as I experimented with the extent to which characters began to resemble or even merge with each other, and then undid that and re-tried those combinations. In this sense, the part of the prompt that focused on “resemblance and disavowal” as creating purity became almost a formal device, as I experimented with characters both resembling and disavowing each other.
The narrator of “The Green Notebook” is a terminally ill intellectual. The knowledge that she’s approaching the end of her life purifies her thinking in a sense, as less important considerations fall away and she focuses on what matters. At first she considers big picture societal concerns, and then she turns increasingly to the subjective and the personal. In both cases she’s confronted with the reality that thought is never really as ‘pure’ as she might want it to be because it’s always shaped by context and relation. The story can be read as her attempting to understand and come to peace with this.
I loved writing about Kurt Schwitters. He’s an inspiring and unconventional artist who invented the word Merz to describe his particular experiments in collage, sculpture, mixed media, music, poetry, architecture, and painting. Sometimes I think his body of work should be considered more significant to the 20th century than Duchamp’s. He was a radical avant-gardist in Nazi Germany who loathed the Reich and everything they stood for, and barely survived the war in exile and internment, and lived out his remaining years in obscurity. The chance to capture the truly indomitable spirit of Kurt Schwitters on the page was a writing experience like no other. I found a little moment from his life in exile that I hoped might capture something of what made Schwitters so incredible.
Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the author of In the Beggarly Style of Imitation and Grand Menteur, which was selected as one of the 100 best books of 2015 by the Globe & Mail. The National Post has hailed his work as “an inventive escape from the conventional.” He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.
Writer and freelance editor Emily Anglin grew up in Waterloo, Ontario, and now lives in Toronto. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and a PhD in English from Queen’s University. Emily Anglin’s first collection of short fiction, The Third Person, was published in 2017. She is currently at work on her first novel.
Devon Code is a fiction writer. He is the author of Involuntary Bliss, a novel, and In A Mist, a collection of stories. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Writers’ Trust Journey Prize. Originally from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, he lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
Lee Henderson is the author of three books: a collection of short stories and two novels, all published with Penguin. A contributing editor for Border Crossings magazine for over fifteen years and cover curator for The Malahat Review since 2015, Henderson teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria. Henderson’s visual art has been exhibited in Canada and abroad.