NER fiction reader Mary Tharin speaks with Alyssa Pelish, whose story “Paleontology” appears in NER 43.1, about excavations, the unknowability of others, and embodied characters.
Mary Tharin: “Paleontology” begins with the painstaking excavation of the largest dinosaur ever uncovered. When I re-read those first paragraphs, it struck me that writers are constantly engaging in their own excavations, uncovering memories and distilling experiences to use in their fiction. Was that on your mind when you started this story?
Alyssa Pelish: I like that observation! That connection, though, wasn’t so much on my mind when I started the story. I had visited the dinosaur wing of the American Museum of Natural History, and I was taken by those signs that continually advise museum goers of the limits of paleontology: what we can’t in fact know about these creatures despite all the careful excavation. That continual admission seemed haunting to me—beautiful and haunting. And it made me think of the limits to what one can ever know about anyone else’s experience.
But then, of course, those museum signs no doubt also attracted my attention because I do spend so much time in that mode of excavation you describe.
MT: The story explores the limits of these excavations: the fact that we can never fully know others, or even ourselves. The narrator is vexed by these limits, and as a reader I sympathized with her. It made me wonder, though, what is behind our need to know so much about each other? What’s so frightening about the alternative?
AP: It’s a really good question. A misguided quest for intimacy? Fear of solipsism?
Miscommunication surfaces in various ways throughout the stories I write. For me, I think this recurring theme stems in part from an old, old fear of being misunderstood—and maybe working to understand others became a way of reassuring myself that I, too, could be understood, that some kind of connection could be forged.
There are, no doubt, other explanations.
I’ve been both fascinated and horrified by stories whose narrators show either an utter lack of regard for someone else’s interiority or a dangerous obsession with it. I’m thinking here of Humbert Humbert’s “safely solipsizing” Lolita, as well as Proust’s narrator’s obsession with what Albertine does when he’s not there, what he can never know about her. In either instance, the other person remains entirely unknowable. (That single, passing moment when it occurs to Humbert that he doesn’t know a thing about Lolita’s mind, that within this girl he calls Lolita there might be “a garden and a twilight”—but that he is incapable of knowing them.)
In a more heartening direction, the way the so-called problem of other minds gets handled in To the Lighthouse is soothing to me. Lily Briscoe first imagines that there exist, “in the chambers of the mind and heart” of Mrs. Ramsey, “tablets bearing sacred inscriptions,” which, if deciphered, could teach her everything she longs to know about this woman. But then Lily realizes that such information is not actually what she’s longing for: what she desires is “nothing that could be written in any language known to men”; what she desires, really, is “intimacy itself.” She recognizes that what she’s longing for is not is not an exhaustive inventory of the contents of another person’s mind. What she’s longing for is a sense of connection. It’s an idea that gets developed later in the novel, when we see how Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey understand each other not because of a strong intellectual connection but because of their shared intimacy. In that scene between them, hardly any verbal language is necessary. “She had not said it: yet he knew.”
That’s not where my narrator ends up. She’s not there yet. She’s made the mistake of thinking that knowing what her son is thinking (finding the inscribed tablets in the chambers of his mind) is the only way toward intimacy with him.
There’s a moment in that classic Thomas Nagel essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat,” that I find similarly soothing. Nagel concludes that, just because our means of apprehending the world won’t ever allow us to understand the subjective experience of being a bat doesn’t mean that bats (or any other creatures) don’t have experiences as rich as those of our own. This observation strikes me as a way of granting others a quiet dignity. There’s a garden within them, a twilight, that can just exist without our quantifying it. Maybe that’s closer to where my narrator ends up.
MT: The narrator of your story is a playwright and her husband is an actor. Is theater important to you? Has it influenced your writing?
AP: Hmmm. I’ve lived in New York for the past eleven years and have a good friend with a theater background, so I’ve certainly watched more theater and thought more about it than in any other period of my life. So, it’s there. But I don’t think of it as a big influence on my writing.
Theater emerged in this story because the narrator privileges talking as a means of knowing other people. It made sense for her to be a playwright who creates dialogues that, when performed, amount to a kind of wish fulfillment. The other elements of theater in this story then readily grew out of that: the self-excavation the Method allows, the skepticism about the correspondence between interiority and behavior that acting implies, and so on. I suppose that, in some ways, I’m interested in writing fiction as a kind of performance, as a means of inhabiting other roles while never being able to completely leave my own perspective behind.
There’s also the fact that, as a writer and reader, I love encountering a character’s interiority on the page. Where a character’s mind goes when they’re doing something in the physical world: the memories and free associations and reflections that arise, the way their particular perspective colors what they’re noticing in that physical world. Theater, of course, doesn’t allow such ready access to a character’s interiority. But that constraint has made me think more about how my characters are embodied, especially when and how to locate them in the physical space of a dialogue. So, for instance, instead of always using speech tags (she said, he asked), I like to experiment with attaching a line of dialogue to a relevant physical description (a facial expression, an action, a tone of voice) of the character or of the space. Thinking of my characters as embodied—as a particular body in a particular space—also becomes part of figuring out what they’ll do or think or feel next.
MT: The “Method” is presented in the story as a way for actors to tap into the essence of emotion. It struck me that this could be useful for writers of fiction as well. Did you have experience with the Method before writing this story? Is it a tool you yourself have used to deepen your storytelling?
AP: I actually knew very little about the Method before I began working on this story. But as I researched it, it did occur to me that it’s not unlike what I do when searching for a way to describe a given character’s perceptions and emotional reactions. Of course I want to be careful not to lend my own emotional and sensory memories to a character where it’s not relevant. But once I’ve figured out how a character should react, I definitely do some excavation of my own. So, no, I’ve never used the Method in any formal way, but writing this story made me more aware of the (lower case) methods I do use.
MT: The story contains snippets of plays that explore how words can be used to establish connection, but can also be meaningless or difficult to find. In the narrator’s play, Talking Board, two sisters use a Ouija board to confront difficult questions; while in The Bald Soprano, absurd dialogue is used to highlight the emptiness of small talk. The narrator seems to feel that words are tools essential to the project of uncovering truth and meaning, while her husband and son put less value and expectation on words. Did you aim to present both sides? Do you, ultimately, lean in one direction?
AP: I’m not sure that I present both sides equally: we see everything from the narrator’s perspective, and she’s so tethered to knowing the world through verbal language that, even when she’s made to reconsider that approach, she only comes to accept what she can’t know—not to consider what might be illuminating about other ways of knowing. It’s possible that comes next for her, but I was most interested in telling the story of her grappling with the limits of what she can know.
Mary Tharin is a fiction reader for NER. Her short stories have appeared in Sixfold, Five on the Fifth, and Collective Realms, among others. A native of California, she now lives in Italy where she teaches English.