Joe Scapellato on “The Made-Up Man” and the Myth of the Self

In Scapellato’s new novel, a man is pulled into a noir detective mystery he doesn’t want to solve.

Kathryn Watson | Longreads | February 2019 | 9 minutes (2,326 words)

 

Joseph Scapellato’s new book The Made-Up Man is a darkly comic, noir-styled novel powered by an energy that’s equal parts mischief, good humor, and measured cynicism. Based on conventions lifted out of the old detective story playbook, the novel is told from the perspective of a slippery narrator, whose sense of identity expands, collapses, and shatters against a series of nagging moral questions that are less situational than they are existential. The result is an intoxicating alchemy, something genre-blurring and philosophically riveting.

The Made-Up Man’s main character and pseudo-protagonist, Stanley, slips into a waking nightmare when he agrees to an apartment-sitting opportunity in Prague. Stanley knows in advance that, if he goes to Prague, he’ll become a pawn in a twisted compression of psychological torment and performance art that his Uncle Lech has waiting for him across the ocean. Lech is a man openly fascinated with figuring out how to exploit whoever he can, for the sake of his “art.” But Stanley opts to take the plane ticket Lech offers and go on the journey anyway, wherever it might lead. While he aims to outsmart his uncle’s plans, Stanley ends up unraveling something much more discomfiting: his definition of himself. There’s “a space at the center of myself that wasn’t me,” Stanley realizes early in his narration, and what lies inside of that space turns out to be a bloodthirst and anger that is both mysterious and intoxicating to him.

Scapellato lives in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a bucolic college town with a thriving creative community centered around Bucknell University, where he teaches writing. Born in the suburbs of Chicago, his fiction is deeply informed by the histories of the places he writes about, and how those pasts inform how we see ourselves. On a rainy day in November, we spoke on the phone about The Made-Up Man’s unlikely mash-up of archaeology, detective noir, and toxic masculinity.

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Kathryn Watson: Tell me about writing The Made-Up Man. How long did it take you, and what was it like?

Joseph Scapellato: I started thinking about this book in 2005, which is just bonkers to think about. After I graduated from undergrad in 2005. I had a very good friend from high school, Andrew, and his father’s graduation gift to him was to send him and a friend to Europe for a month. I got to be the lucky friend that went with Andrew on his father’s dime. We went to a bunch of big cities in Europe. We wound up in Prague; we stopped there just because we had heard it was beautiful.

We were just both incredibly charmed by the city when we were there. We were only there for three days, and while we were there we just kind of made up this inside joke between the two of us pretending that we were into some sort of film noir detective story set in Prague.

So in a way this novel began as a joke between me and Andrew.

Consumerism makes desires seem simple because it’s offering solutions… Art takes the time to show us that simple things are complex.

Where did you get the idea to include all these archaeology elements?

In the very first draft it actually begins with Kutna Hora, in that Ossuary, that church of bones. That’s where the original draft began. The seeds for archaeology were there in the beginning. But I didn’t think about making Stanley a graduate student dropout until a little bit later.

I think it came up for a few reasons. One is that when I was an undergrad I took an archaeology class when I was in my junior year, and I had this brief panicked moment where I thought, “Wow man, should I go into this?” because I loved it so much. But it was too late, and I was too much in love with making things up, so I didn’t veer off into archaeology, but ever since then I’ve had incredible respect for archaeologists.

And then there’s a way in which it has a thematic intersection with performance art elements in the book, this question of clue-ing together who you are or who an ancient people are or what the self is. The archaeology elements seem to be in conversation with the performance elements and as soon as they started talking I was like, I want to listen to this, and see where it goes.

At first the archaeological elements don’t seem like they completely intersect with the theme of performance art, when you first start reading the book and you don’t know that much about Stanley. But toward the end, what I think are the two major themes you have going really dovetail beautifully in the way that Stanley’s character resolves. So can you tell me a little bit more about the making of Stanley and who that character is?

In my story collection, Big Lonesome, there’s a story in there called “Dead Dogs.” And the narrator in the story [feels like he could be] the brother of Stanley. And I thought, “There’s more that I could do with this voice.” I put the voice inside a larger field and it grew.

I’m really interested in how people can get choked tight by hypermasculinity and toxic masculinity. I’ve seen the ways that this culture of hypermasculinity damages men by making them feel that they can’t talk about their feelings and obviously there are many other victims of toxic masculinity. There are people in my family and the people that I know who I’ve seen destroy themselves through this.

And so there’s a little bit of that in Stanley. He’s doesn’t quite know who he is because he’s not allowed — he feels as if he’s not allowed to be who he is, he can’t say who he is. He doesn’t have the tools to say who he is.

Stanley is a character whose hypermasculinity and feeling of “not being allowed” comes in direct conflict with the world of art and this masochistic, 3D-chess level of performance art that’s happening within his own family. I’m curious as to how you view art, just in everyday life and in writing.

There are so many unknowns in the world. There are so many places in the world that are trying to tell us that complex things are simple, way more simple than they are. So the whole point of political rhetoric is to make really complex issues seem simple.

Consumerism makes desires seem simple because it’s offering solutions, which are simple, right? And art — one of the really important functions of art, at least from my point of view, is that it can remind us that things that we are told that are simple are actually incredibly complex and maybe even beyond knowing. Art takes the time to show us that simple things are complex.

Culture is telling Stanley that his life is simple or should be simple. And his encounters with art are telling him something else, which is maybe why he’s attracted to it and repelled by it at the same time.

And these questions about complexity are essential to self-construction. They are essential even when they’re being ignored.


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While you were constructing this narrative of Stanley not really knowing why he is going to go to his uncle’s apartment, and not really knowing why he’s walking into this trap, did you feel that you were hearkening back maybe to some sort of detective story, turning it around where the detective is aiming to find out something more about himself? How is that working with noir elements that you have in there?

Yeah. I’m really interested in literary noir, or existential noir. I’m a huge fan of Laura Van den Berg’s work. I really like Paul Auster. One of my goals, especially in early drafts of this novel, was to invert the conventions of noir or a detective story. So in this book you have a character who is in a slot of the detective even though he’s not a detective. And he is investigating a mystery against his will, and is trying to avoid investigating it.

At least on the surface level, he already knows the answers. “Who is behind it? And why are they doing it?” He’s pretty sure he knows those answers.

One of the guiding questions in my early drafts was, “Can I try to invert every single element of a film noir and make a novel out of it that is not boring?” That’s what I really tried to do.

As you begin to write the work, the work starts to assert its own intentions. Your obligation as a writer… is to throw away the writer’s intention and follow the work’s intention because the work is smarter than you are.

It was interesting because I found that the inversion of certain conventions is still following those conventions, in some cases, because you’re inside a shape that forces everything inside that. It’s almost as if the form is more important than the content in determining what makes up the genre.

So for example I find myself saying, “Okay, who’s in the slot of the femme fatale, and whoever is in a spot of the femme fatale, what do they typically do? Do they betray the hero, or do they help the hero or do they do some combination of both?”

I couldn’t figure out a clear answer to that because sometimes the femme fatale betrays and sometimes the femme fatale doesn’t… so that was kind of tricky. [Laughter] It was at that point that I realized that the initial impulse to invert all of the conventions of film noir had gotten the bus moving but then I had to look in other directions to figure out how to get it to the final destination.

I love how in the resolution of the novel these inversions aren’t about conclusions necessarily. It’s not about what we conclude about certain characters. It’s more just about the wide angle lens of what they mean to who Stanley is and what he finds out. I was thinking about that for days afterward.

One of the most useful things that I learned in graduate school was taught by Robert Boswell, who talked about the difference between the writer’s intention and the work’s intention. The idea being that as a writer you sit down and you have one intention or one set of intentions about what you want the piece to be. As you begin to write the work, the work starts to assert its own intentions. Your obligation as a writer — whenever the work’s intention is in conflict with the writer’s intention — is to throw away the writer’s intention and follow the work’s intention because the work is smarter than you are.

My favorite part of the book happens in a chapter where Stanley suddenly recalls all of the things that people have told him about himself and how it doesn’t align at all with what he thinks he is. Mechanically, It’s a really entertaining chapter because it’s the characters that you’ve built up throughout the novel that are now narrating to us who Stanley is versus who he’s been telling us he is this entire time.

In noir, the detective is super observant and notices everything, even though the detective might not notice the one important thing and get tricked near the end. The detective usually notices most things. And I thought, well what if I write, you know, what if Stanley is actually just wrong about everything?

Online and in other forums, you talk a lot about alternatives to plot.

For me, plot has never been the most useful term. I completely understand how it is for others, but for me, plot is what you say about a story after it happened. There’s something summative about the word that I can’t find helpful.

When I was in grad school I took a bunch of classes with Antonya Nelson, and I remember her talking about shape, which is another way of thinking about plot. A shape is basically a structural container for a story that suggests natural beginnings, middles, and endings. For example, every Harry Potter book is in the shape of an academic year, maybe [including] a little bit of the summer before the school year started. There are other shapes inside the novel, but that’s the outer frame.

What I like about the idea of shape is that it suggests these natural beginnings, middles, and endings that can give you ideas for what to do next. But you can also resist. You can try to find artful ways to resist those natural suggestions. So in the early drafts of The Made-Up Man, the story began with Stanley looking at this chandelier of bone made out of plague victims at the Ossuary.

I realized at some point that wasn’t the shape of the novel. What I learned from writing more pages was that the shape of the novel is Stanley’s visit to Prague, so it made much more sense to begin the novel when Stanley arrives in Prague and end with when he leaves Prague, literally or metaphorically. And I don’t think I would have come to that realization if I had just been thinking, “plot.” The term “shape” really helped me with that, but that might just be me.

If you had to sort of sum up the themes of your work in general, what would you say?

I think my first love was mythology. When I was growing up I really loved reading just about any kind of myth. I still do.

There is a some kind of dimension of myth in everything I write. The Made-Up Man, it’s the myths of the self. Big Lonesome, it’s the myth of the American West and, through that, the myth of America.

And the next book that I’m working on is going to be about American presidents.

Oh God!

I know. I know…. I know. I don’t know, Kate. I’m gonna try.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Kathryn Watson is a NY-based freelance writer whose work explores art, books, tech, and the eroding distinction between “high” and “low” culture. Her work has been published by  Hyperallergic, PASTE, Brit + Co., and others

Editor: Dana Snitzky