Alistair McCartney’s compelling new novel, The Disintegrations (University of Wisconsin Press) is the story of one man’s obsession with death. It pulls no punches. As Australian author Christos Tsiolkas wrote, it’s “a book that takes possession of you right from the opening and will not let you go. Challenging and gripping, a rumination on death and memory that speaks eloquently to our sense of loss, both personal and communal. The writing is exquisite. I know this book will haunt me for the longest time.”
I found myself similarly haunted as I read this genre-bending book, engrossed in the stories of suicides, serial killers and a disquieting array of natural deaths. I was drawn into the unique and surprisingly funny perceptions of its narrator and moved by the warmth that arises in unexpected places. McCartney establishes a wonderful intimacy between the author and the reader.
I recently caught up with my fellow Australian-American in his neighborhood of Venice Beach to talk about The Disintegrations, as a warm up to our conversation at Skylight Books on September 16th.
How did you come to write The Disintegrations? Can you talk about how your fascination with death was born?
The book arose from an obsession. That’s the source from which all my writing springs. My first novel, The End of The World Book was an encyclopedia of obsessions, literally, A to Z, but for this book I narrowed the lens to just one. Who knows why we become fascinated with anything? I was fixated on the subject and I needed to write my way out of it. It’s not a subject I would have chosen to write about. That said, since I was a teenager, most of the writers I’ve gravitated to—Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, Dennis Cooper, W.G. Sebald, to name just a few– have taken the excavation of death as their primary subject. And I think it’s a fairly common preoccupation, though one we’re taught to repress. My narrator can’t repress it.
The protagonist of your book spends a lot of time at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, wandering around, trying to get to the bottom of death. I am also someone who is fascinated by and writes in cemeteries (my local being Hollywood Forever.) Can you talk about your relationship with Holy Cross?
Well, like my narrator, I do teach across the street from Holy Cross, at Antioch University. I’ve taken my classes there, had my students write there. My book is very much an investigation of that cemetery, drawing on that great tradition of writers mining the mythology of Death and California, like Joan Didion. But at a certain point, I didn’t allow myself to go there or even look at it, even though I can see it from my office window. The “Holy Cross” I conjure up is based on the actual space, but it’s a character, it’s the cemetery I’ve fashioned in my head.
You call this book a novel but it reads as a subtle fusion of fiction, nonfiction, memoir and prose poem. Did you write The Disintegrations with much awareness as to the form it was taking?
Yes and no. The book took me about 8 or 9 years to write, and one of the reasons for that was figuring out the “right” form to tell this story, to hold together the pieces I’d written. It was originally much longer and more traditionally structured, but I realized the structure wasn’t working and last year I did a pretty radical re-write and re-visioning that arose organically. One thing I was always clear on was that even though I would use real names, this book is fiction. My stories are eulogies, but they’ve fictional eulogies. It’s impossible to access the truth of the dead. Like I say in the introduction, “death makes fiction of us all.”
You became a US citizen last month, after a long immigration struggle, something your husband the performance artist Tim Miller has done great work on. What was that like? And can you talk about your identity as a writer – an Australian writer, a gay writer, an immigrant writer, a California writer? Do you particularly ascribe to any of those monikers? Or do you find them limiting or unhelpful?
To be sworn in with over 4,000 new immigrants at the LA Convention Center was amazing and moving. For me, that only became possible when DOMA was overturned, and Tim and I were able to finally marry. For years we were living in great uncertainty, so becoming a citizen after more than 20 years of bureaucracy was a huge relief.
To answer the 2nd part of the question, I think all those categories arise in this book. Some of the stories take place in Australia, much of it is rooted in California and LA. The narrator’s sense of distance from the past and from his own life is perhaps the predicament of the immigrant. And one of the recurring threads in The Disintegrations is the intersection between sex and death. But if I take up any moniker, it would be, to go back to the first question, obsession: I’m an obsessive writer who has to follow his obsessions through to the end.
David Francis and Alistair McCartney will talk more about The Disintegrations at Skylights Books, 1818 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90027, on Saturday September 16th, 5:00pm.