Roy Kesey is the author of Pacazo (the January 2011 selection for The Rumpus Book Club), All Over, Nothing in the World, and a historical guide to the city of Nanjing, China.
“Roy Kesey's Pacazo is like a cannonball rolling downhill, but even as its readers are propelled forward by this magnificent story, I hope they will also notice all the other things the author does so well. The plain truth is that this is a tender book, and it's a thoughtful one, too. This superb writer knows as much about the human heart as anybody out there, and this novel belongs on the shelf where you keep the books you love best.”
“Intense, hypnotic and stunningly visceral, Roy Kesey's story of a man driven to madness by the murder of his wife grabs you from the first page and drags you into a dark, hallucinatory journey that you won't want to stop. It's one of those books that reminds you of the great power of a novel to transport and transform a reader.”
“Roy Kesey used to be the best-kept secret in American literature, but with Pacazo the secret is out. In this debut novel Kesey strides up alongside Graham Greene, melding intrigue, religion, and exotica into a story as edifying as it is entertaining. Ultimately, though, Kesey's greatest achievement lies in his ability to illuminate all that is grand and horrible in love.”
Through college and some few years after, I regularly wrote music reviews. This took me to concerts 2-4 nights a week, and I could rely on receipt of a couple promo CDs each day. Having absorbed that volume of music means that, even now, any record or live show is diluted, watered-down. It takes something truly extraordinary in a record for it to rise above the rest.
The same holds true for books, of course. On more than one occasion I’ve remarked that the more I read, the more I learn what I haven’t read. But as with records, there does occasionally come along something that breaches the surface of all that dilution, and when it does, it must, naturally, do so at a higher level.
I think it was March that I first read Roy Kesey’s remarkable novel Pacazo, a 500+ pager that rose up and knocked me flat. I read it over several sittings, while wading through the regular assortment of chapbooks and magazines on the bedstand. Over Memorial Day weekend I dove in again, but this time on a beach in Long Island with only beers and kelp-plucking seagulls for company. Kesey makes time and language something like liquid in the book, and I wanted to do this second read without distraction, to do nothing but drink it in and focus on how the hell he pulled it off.
I could happily drown in this book, is what I’m saying.
Pacazo takes its title from a large lizard indigenous to Peru, what on the first page is described as “nothing but an uncommonly large iguana.” Our hero of the novel, however, prefers “to believe [the pacazo] is some imp of history, coincidence made scaled flesh, a god no one worships anymore.” This dual interpretation, conflicting between the dullness of common present and romanticization of heroic past, is just one of the many currents stirring beneath the surface of the book.
Floating messages between New York and Peru these last few months, Kesey and I did our best to go a bit deeper. . . .
* * *
Joseph Riippi: Put bluntly, one could say Pacazo begins as the story of a man tortured by his past, but who seeks guidance or solace in the history of his adopted homeland. I’ve never been to Peru, but the book nevertheless left me with the impression of a deep, richly historical place. What was it about the country and its history that led to your writing this novel?
Roy Kesey: It’s interesting to me to hear it framed that way. Our Hero (OH) spends much of the book fairly sure that he doesn’t need guidance, and doesn’t deserve solace; but you’re right, there are senses in which he nonetheless turns to history for both straight and twisted versions of both. That throat-clearing aside: yes, unquestionably, Peru is (like most places, I suspect) neck-deep in complicated, fascinating history, and somehow I managed to spend the first 8 drafts (read: first 9 years) of the novel running away from that fact. That’s how long it took me to realize that I needed to embrace history (or histories, really: national and regional and familial and individual and linguistic and et cetera) as content, and also as structural conceit, if the novel was going to fulfill the hopes I’d had for it starting out.
Or, if the question was Why Peru instead of Ecuador or Kenya or Sweden or Malaysia?, then: Peru is where I was (and am, for the time being.) Life gifts you access to certain things, and you can make use of them, or go off looking for other things. Like most writers, probably, I do a bit of both for each book, but this one is grounded in a place (not just Peru generally, but northern-desert-coast-of-Peru specifically) that I knew well in actual day-to-day life, which, while not exactly essential, rarely hurts, in my experience.
Or, if the question was In what sense did Pacazo become what it is precisely because it’s set in Peru? (as I’m now suspecting it [the question] was all along — I’m a little slow), then: that’s one of the questions to which the novel itself is the answer. But just to sort of tug at one thread as an example: what does it mean for your psyche and life when almost all of your National Heroes died in battles subsequently lost?
JR: What you do with language and time in the first chapter is remarkable. The narrative often moves mid-sentence and within present tense, from modern Piura to centuries-old explorers. You write in that chapter, “In Spanish, tense and time are a single word.” With language so important to this work, I’m interested how you think the limitations and/or advantages of English over Spanish affected the story you told?
RK: Thanks. Also: I have a terrible feeling that any legitimate attempt at an answer to this question would run a hundred pages. Plus footnotes. Plus indices. But, so, okay:
There may well be ways in which one could occasionally speak meaningfully of the advantages of one language over another for a given task or field, but those ways are, I suspect, a lot weaker and fewer in number and in the end less interesting and less useful than one might guess. And that question (i.e. about the relative betterness of a given language in a given context) wasn’t really one I was trying to ask in the course of writing Pacazo. I was more interested, I guess, in playing in the neurolinguistic intermuck where (some) long-term expats pitch their tents.
That is, the book takes place almost exclusively in English, which happens to be OH’s L1. Now, he does great work in Spanish, his L2, but it (his L2) (along with a bunch of other things) is messing with his L1 (and with his brain more generally) in what I hope are interesting ways. For example, because language matters to him, and (in part) because translation and interpretation and TEFL are constants in his workaday world, he often comes up against the fact that some of the English phrases that most native English speakers use regularly make no literal sense, and at times make anti-sense, which can (a) work against any sort of clarity, but also (b) be kind of weird and beautiful. There’s also the question of his students’ L1-induced English errors, and the eddies those errors create in OH’s mind. And the question of the neural consequences of the more experimental Spanish he reads — the Oquendo de Amat poems, etc. Plus also the question of regionalisms in the Spanish he hears every day, of which the title is one — their place within Spanish generally and Peruvian Spanish specifically, et cetera. Plus also et cetera.
So that’s one level of it. Another is where you’d find the technical or logistical matters that interested me as I was working on the novel: how to have the question of which language a given character is speaking at any given time be perpetually clear for the reader but (almost) never overtly addressed, for example. Another example, one still closer to my heart, maybe even inside it, like cholesterol, blocking arteries left and right: the question of how to rid the world of interlingual italics. This has become an absurd little crusade of mine. It drives me crazy, this “the campesino ate an empanada outside the hacienda” business (and I owe that example, however misquoted, to Paul Theroux — wish I could remember which book it was — maybe the Patagonian Express one?). So I have taken it upon myself to convince all current and future writers to join me in repeating, cultmantra-like: All Non-English Words Become English Words The Instant I Use Them Unambiguously In An Otherwise English Text! And Thus (With The Help Of A Retroactive Microsecond’s Worth Of Magic) Do Not Need Italics! Plus Also Now The Entire English Corpus Has Shifted Toward The Other Language’s Corpus, And Vice Versa! (And The Same Goes For Whenever An English Word Is Used In An Otherwise Non-English Text!) And All This Is A Good Thing! Because Of Empathy! Et Cetera!
My next two absurd little crusades will involve stamping out the use of exclamation points and non-standard capitalization, respectively, naturally.
JR: I am almost sure it’s the Patagonian Express one you’re referring to, but it’s been awhile since I read that. Theroux has enough books it might be in multiple.
One last question / thoughtfodder-catalyst, because it seems it only took a couple questions to get a rather wonderful bit of thoughtfodder on the page: When I first sat back from Pacazo and breathed and considered it in the context of your other work, I thought immediately of the story “Wait” from All Over, in which airline passengers are kept captive by the weather in an airport terminal of purgatorial limbo. Would it be fair to compare Our Hero’s memory of his wife with that fog, keeping him in a sort of misguided purgatory? To be grand, I could see extending that personal past to a nation’s historical / social past, clouding the direction home, obfuscating us as nations / societies from getting anywhere. In your story “Invunche y voladora,” too, also from All Over, there’s a disconnect between the newlywed couple’s anticipation / expectation of their South American honeymoon and the reality of the days, a reality which may continue to the future of the marriage. Am I just italicizing hacienda here, or is this a theme you’re consciously engaging with when you sit down to the crusading?
RK: During the actual crusade-type crusading, the hardcore first-drafting, there’s no themework at all — you’re just doing what you can to follow the voice, thinking with your hands, the vorpal blade, valley of death, et cetera. But then afterwards, when you’re icing down those tendons, and securing victuals against the fact that ‘vorpal blade’ made you think of ‘snicker-snack’ which made you hungry, you survey the field, and sure, sometimes the bodies lie in patterns that please you, patterns that can be made sense of, and sure, what the hell, let’s call those patterns ‘themes.’ At which point you finish up your snickerdoodles and mingle with the mess, adjusting a severed head here and a fallen standard there, palpating this wound and stretching out these bowels just a tad, not so much (in my experience) in the interest of clarifying the themes, exactly, (though sometimes that too,) as of complicating them in ways that will (if all goes well) get them (if you will) talking amongst themselves.
Now. Are there certain questions I return to? Sure. Am I — to take your premise gently by the hand, look deep into its eyes, and smile just so—absurdly interested in the means we employ in our (successful or unsuccessful, makes no never mind) attempts variously to deal with / conquer / ignore / escape / endure / tunnel through / vault / sidle past That Which Obstructs Us? Yes, yes I am. And will That Which Obstructs Us have landed in our path having leap-frogged us from some point in our past? Not necessarily, but sometimes, probably — maybe even most of the time. As to whether a specific set of circumstances will occasion an attempt requiring the use of a luggage carousel, a hot air balloon, a bus ride into the highlands or something else entirely, I submit there is no knowing in advance, least of all for this writer hisownself.