Chris F. Westbury is the author of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Counterpoint LLC), a featured title in the Summer/Fall 2014 Indies Introduce promotion. Westbury is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta, where his research focuses on the neurological underpinnings and functional structure of language.
What was your inspiration for The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even?
Chris F. Westbury: The original germ of an idea I began with was to write about “a cure by art,” the idea that some illnesses might be cured by exposure to art. This is a special case of a more general theme that the meaning of the world is not primarily contained in the world itself but is profoundly modulated by abstract ideas whose only existence is in our heads.
I focused on the art of the French artist Marcel Duchamp for three reasons. One was the mundane biographical fact that I happened to have a lot of unused excess knowledge about Duchamp. I have been interested in his work for decades and had read so much about him that I was “finished” with him; I was finding that new reading was giving me no new information. So I had a lot of acquired knowledge that had never been expressed in any way. The second reason is that I knew that Duchamp drew many people very deeply into his work in a quasi-obsessive way. I have several acquaintances whose lives have been deeply affected and actually substantively altered by exposure to Duchamp’s ideas. Duchamp has this effect because his ideas are both very intellectual and deeply paradoxical, an endlessly fascinating cerebral puzzle that can send a person into a maze from which there is no escape. Finally, Duchamp’s idea of “a readymade” (an ordinary object designated as art) fits in well with the fact that obsessive compulsives can sometimes become obsessed with industrial objects, although it is not a common expression of the disorder. I was trained (though have never practiced) as a clinical psychologist. I once met a patient with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) who was fixated on the corners of doorways to the extent that he could not stop himself from spending hours staring at them if they caught his attention. This was my inspiration for my character Greg’s symptom of being obsessed with spoons, though that symptom is an expression of OCD that does not, so far as I know, exist.
Can you give our readers a little background on the title? Are you a fan of Duchamp and Dadaism?
CFW: The title was taken from Duchamp’s famous work of art (one cannot really call it either a sculpture or a painting without doing it injustice), which was titled in French La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même. For most Duchampians, that piece is the most important one Duchamp ever made. It marks his decisive movement away from what he thereafter derided as “retinal art,” i.e., art which was just something to look at. Duchamp’s enigmatic and ironic notes to the piece (from which my chapter headings are drawn) are as much a part of the piece as the physical object itself. As I explain in the novel, the piece involves nine bachelors who have some kind of complex and not entirely satisfactory relationship with a bride, or at least with the idea of a bride.
Notwithstanding its anti-retinal significance, no Duchampian fails to make a pilgrimage at some point to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the piece there, so the pilgrimage made by my characters is totally in keeping with their Duchampian interests. In French, the term mise à nu, while literally meaning “made nude,” has psychological connotations similar to those expressed in English by the expression “bared ones soul.” So the bride is not literally having her clothes removed so much as becoming psychologically accessible, having her psyche revealed. In my novel no one is ever actually stripped bare, but the narrator does make progress in understanding and normalizing women, who begin as idealized, remote, and untouchable objects of desire for him.
As you can probably guess from the answers above, I am a huge fan of Marcel Duchamp in particular, and also a fan of Dadaism (and of utter nonsense, more generally). However, I note that many people would argue that Duchamp was not a Dadaist. He was already in New York in 1916 when Dadaism “officially” began in Zurich, and by then had already completed many of the works that later got him associated with Dadaism. He moved mainly on the periphery of the Dadaist movement and by his own testament had little to do with it. He made no attempt to “be a Dadaist” when he moved back to Europe after World War I. Moreover, Duchamp did not really embrace the “pure meaninglessness” of Dada; his work was intended to make the spectator think (albeit in very abstract and impractical [or perhaps very obscurely practical] ways), rather than to make thinking irrelevant by making it impossible.
Dadaism was, in a large part, a reaction to the social change and hysteria of WWI. Was it intentional that your Dada-loving main characters are suffering from OCD, an anxiety disorder that seeks to reduce apprehension through compulsion? Is there a touch of irony that these characters would love an art form constructed as a response to a societal anxiety?
CFW: Although I would be lying if I said this was actually my intention, I am willing to say I do like this interpretation! It was not on my mind for the reason above: I don’t consider Duchamp to be a Dadaist. I never thought about Dadaism per se while writing the novel, and the term does not appear anywhere in the book (except in passing, when my character Greg says that an anagram of his full name “isn’t completely terrible as a piece of Dadaist poetry.”)
That said, I do believe there is a very close link between the reduction of anxiety and Duchamp’s philosophy of art as outlined in my novel. In my mind, Duchamp belongs to a long line of skeptical philosophers, going back to Pyrrho, who lived a few centuries before the common era, and his disciple and “popularizer,” Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the second century and wrote a text that still survives called The Outlines of Pyrrhonism. The basic philosophy of the Pyrrhic skeptics was to withhold judgment in all things in pursuit of a state of mind they called ataraxia, freedom from worry. Although as far as I know Duchamp never referenced the ancient Greek skeptics, he lived exactly as they suggested, trying to withhold judgment and thereby reduce the need for worrying. He is famously quoted as having once said, “There is no solution because there is no problem.” And he wrote to the French poet André Breton: “For me there is something other than yes, no, and indifferent — there is for example the absence of investigations of this kind.”
This kind of refusal to make a judgment is not very far from the cure for OCD. Those who make progress in overcoming OCD symptoms through cognitive behavioral therapy do it by learning not to be “fooled” by the thoughts that underlie their symptoms, which amounts to not making the judgment (e.g., “I must wash my hands”) that they feel compelled to make.
How did your professional expertise as a cognitive neuropsychologist help inform your debut, both in content and stylistically?
CFW: Interesting question.
I believe that learning to write as a scientist has taught me to write more clearly and succinctly than I otherwise would have. I am (alas) naturally inclined to write torturously long and convoluted sentences. I have had to unlearn that to write scientifically, which has probably had a salutary effect on my fiction.
More generally, my training in neuropsychology (and as a clinician) has inclined me to consider people largely in mechanistic terms. I have seen a wide variety of undeniably mechanical breakdowns in human beings, from brain lesions to epileptic seizures to neurotransmitter imbalances. I believe that our individuality is mainly the result of differences in our physiological make-up and the massively multidimensional subtleties of embodied experience, rather than to any “ghost in the machine” over which we can exercise control. We think we are in control of ourselves, but we are in fact largely positioned in a complex space defined by a vast multitude of competing micro-forces outside of our control. This is not a bad attitude for a novelist, since a novel can be defined as an emotionally interesting description of people being buffeted around by the world.
When I first started reading Bride Stripped Bare, Isaac reminded me a little of an older, less death obsessed version of Harold from Harold and Maude, which may not have been the intention. Are you a fan of the movie? Did it play any role in your characterization of Isaac?
CFW: I am a fan of Harold and Maude, although I have not seen the movie in decades now. I remember very well the first time I saw it, at a university movie night when I was an undergrad. It made a big impact on me at the time. I can see the parallels between Harold and Isaac. The two stories are also similar, inasmuch as both are coming-of-age stories in which an avoidant male protagonist is brought into a world he has been avoiding by the lure of the feminine. Although I did not explicitly think of the film as I was writing, it is hard to say how we form our archetypes for characterization. Perhaps the seed of the kind of guy that Isaac is was planted in my head all those years ago when I saw that film.
Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you?
CFW: Yes, I had a very bookish childhood and have been an avid reader all my life.
I remember one book from my childhood that I adored. It was a book of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses, which was fantastically illustrated. I think it was a combination of Stevenson’s excellent sense of metre, his slightly old-fashioned vocabulary, and the wonderful illustrations that made such an impact on me.
I had no idea of who the illustrator was, so have just looked it up thanks to the magic of the Internet: it was a man named Brian Wildsmith, and the edition I had was published by Oxford University Press in 1966. I still love those illustrations, and it was a delight to see some of them again after so many years.
I have never forgotten one very short poem from that book entitled “Happy Things,” which I had as a poster in my childhood bedroom. Here it is in its entirety:
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
I doubt that this book influenced my fiction writing at all. I do remember the first “literary” book I ever bought for myself, when I was a teenager; it was Charles Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man. I remember reading J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories about that same time, and being absolutely blown away by it. I had never read anything like it.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
CFW: I always stop at bookstores when I travel. My favorites are The Strand in New York City, the fabulous massive Powell’s City of Books in Portland, and the literary, airy (liter-airy?) Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, to which I made a pilgrimage with my wife and daughter last year. I have extremely fond memories of a second-hand bookstore called The Word that I frequented very often when I was a student in Montreal. It is still there. I lived in Paris for a year when I was 20 years old, and was delighted to be able to visit Shakespeare & Company (former hangout of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Henry Miller) on a regular basis.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
CFW: S, by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (aka Ship of Theseus, by V.M. Straka), which I am finding very slow going.
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, by David Foster Wallace, which I have not started. I read his Infinite Jest several years ago, which left me feeling that Wallace was well-qualified to write about things that are endless; I’d have edited that book down to no more than a quarter of its size.
On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd. I have just started this and so far it seems interesting, although I have not gotten to the real meat of the book yet.
On my phone I am listening to an unedited audio copy of Ben Hur: A Story of Christ, by Lew Wallace, which I am enjoying more than I expected to.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?
CFW: I found this question very difficult to answer. I have written and deleted several long, complicated, carefully nuanced, multidisciplinary answers. I am more of a “let a million flowers bloom” kind of guy than a prescriptivist. I am doubtful that there are any books that “have” to be read by everyone. I would want to put a different book in each customer’s hand.
But I think that answer is a violation of the spirit of the question, so here are some other possible answers.
I believe that everyone should spend some time admiring British artist Tom Phillips’ altered book (now in multiple editions) A Humument. Phillips has for decades now been painting over and making collages on pages of an obscure Victorian novel called A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, leaving words to show through on each page that are often amusing and/or profound. It’s a wonder that I have enjoyed for many years.
As far as fiction goes, I am a big fan of Richard Powers, a great psychological writer. I would give people Galatea 2.2 because I think it his most accessible book. An oldie but a goodie: I want everyone to have read 9 Stories by J.D. Salinger, which for me changed what I thought a story could be. I would recommend Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. For sheer excellent writing (and notwithstanding that many people find it annoying for other reasons), I would push Dave Eggers’ book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I would recommend John Lanchester’s A Debt to Pleasure, which is beautifully written, clever, and intriguing. If that mixture of elegant darkness and great writing appealed to the customer, I would also get him to buy Ian McEwan’s haunting little book Black Dogs, possibly by offering a 15 percent discount if he bought both.
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
CFW: I’d like to have a few glasses of wine with Henry Miller, whose writing I admire very much. His presence rules out a lot of possibilities since I know that most people would not put up with him. I know Tom Robbins would, and I think the three of us would have fun together. I’d round out the group by inviting Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
The four of us would talk about whether meaning is created or discovered, how to find and keep love and what kind of love is worth finding and keeping, why laughing is vital, what sort of God would find Itself worth existing, whether art is schlooby-pie or schlooby-pie is art, and whether the Californians really make better wine than the French do now.
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, by Chris F. Westbury (Counterpoint, Hardcover, 9781619022904). Publication Date: June 10, 2014
Learn more about Chris Westbury at chrisfwestbury.blogspot.com.
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