Daniel Allen Cox on Midlife Meltdowns, Queer Lit, and His ’Basement of Wolves’
We don’t learn the name of the narrator of Daniel Allen Cox’s new novel, "Basement of Wolves," until page 28. The novel boasts a Cox’s trademark style: A narrative voice that shifts effortlessly from first person to an eerie omniscient viewpoint, also belonging to the main character, who imagines in great detail the response the film’s director, and the studio suits to whom he is beholden, have to his disappearance. This is a man in the midst of a midlife crisis and career meltdown, if not an outright mental break.
Michael-David (no last name is ever given) is an actor hitting 40, which means that he’s too old for his customary demographic and too young for a new bracket in the Hollywood casting system. In five years or so--Michael-David tells us--he will be old enough to make his return to films: At that point he will have acquired a sort of elder statesman status, a gravitas that will lend itself to characters meant to possess a certain level of maturity.
The problem is that Hollywood is a place of extremes: Punks and power players, boys and men, The Next Hot Things and Cinematic Legends. There’s not a lot of room, or sympathy, for much in between, not in this town. Michael-David might characterize his problem as a matter of swimming with sharks, if not for his latest role (and possibly his last)--a film about a man raised by wolves who learns about the noble heart that beats in the savage breast.
Wolves, Michael-David comes to believe from researching and working with the animals, are smart and brave, perhaps more so than we are. As if in melancholy evidence of this, the film’s beauty and power is dimmed when the project itself is eviscerated by executive decisions about the storyline: An ambitious film about rising above adversity is reduced to a revenge flick, and Michael-David, in protest (and also in a fit of paranoia), bolts. The actor hides himself away at a luxury hotel in the company of a young male hustler who may be cooking up a terrorist attack... or who may be a figment of Michael-David’s own frenzied imagination.
Cox’s book is a fever dream of vivid colors and cool, shapely prose. The Canadian author, whose previous books include "Shuck" and "Krakow Melt," both of which were short-listed for the Lambda Literary, ReLit, and Ferro-Grumley Awards, recently spoke to EDGE via an email exchange about his new novel.
EDGE: Am I correct in getting the sense that you are commenting on a certain loss not only of confidence but also of essential identity? Is that a symptom or a result of Michael-David’s paranoia and his career crisis?
Daniel Allen Cox: I’m not very good at analyzing this stuff. My interpretation of my own work tends to shift wildly over time. I just re-read "Basement of Wolves," and I have to say it’s still a mystery to me.
What I know for sure is that Michael-David’s identity is in trouble. He doesn’t seem to know who he is anymore. I think this happens to everybody at multiple points in their lives, and perhaps more acutely to those suffering from paranoia and who work in high-profile careers. Loss of identity is amplified exponentially when it becomes public debate, when everybody has an opinion about who you are.
EDGE: "Basement of Wolves" is a hybrid of sorts--it’s a scorching send-up of Hollywood, fame, and all that, but it’s also crafted with such beautiful writing that it’s a literary accomplishment before all else. What’s your method to aligning the stinging emotional effect of your novels with your sculpted, precise prose style?
Daniel Allen Cox: I don’t believe I have a method for what you see in the writing. With anything, it’s a balancing act. You can edit a sentence to death until it’s heartless, but the unravelling of a character’s thoughts from page to page can still produce the emotional effect you’re talking about. Or you can sculpt a sentence to hit someone in the gut and it can fall flat because there’s nothing behind it.
What I know for sure is that I write from a place of feeling, from urgency. That is my best writing mode and I hope it conveys. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the writer intends. Readers will always take away something completely different.
EDGE: Michael-David has palpable scorn for a number of thinly disguised stars. Are your own feelings coming to the surface here? Or are you simply making use of cultural landmarks, so to speak, to orient your readers?
Daniel Allen Cox: I don’t know much about celebrity culture and don’t have many well-formed opinions about stars. Haven’t had a working television in years, so when I see a red-carpet event, I can never match the faces to the names.
But yes, I think I tend to use a lot of cultural landmarks in my work, including people. Not only to orient the reader, but also to reconnect me to cities I’m trying to commune with sexually through writing.
EDGE: You employ a decidedly intriguing, challenging method here: the first-person narrator as paranoid, most likely delusional, third-person omniscient voice at intermittent times. You used a similar shifting point of view in "Krakow Melt." The method allows for a certain sort of immediacy and intensity... Do you feel this sort of writing is the way of the modern novel? Are older approaches, such as the third-person omniscient voice, no longer as relevant to us as the world speeds up and reality TV changes how we experience narrative?
Daniel Allen Cox: I have no business commenting on the way of the modern novel! But since you’re asking, I don’t think art should move in a single direction, it should move in all directions.
This book was a happy accident, so not much of it was deliberate. Ideas and stories came out of the haze into my daily life and forced me to do something with them. They had to be integrated somehow. So in a way, the book is a solution to a mathematical problem.
But yes, you have an interesting theory about typical viewers of ’reality TV’ representing a new template for writing voices, and our growing inability to see any other way. I think you might be onto something. TV could be training us to become highly opinionated voyeurs.
EDGE: The title derives from a film that Michael-David stars in, but the film is not at all the focus of the book. Given the crisis that Michael-David is going through, is that "basement" his own subconscious? For that matter, the book’s tone and certain events that take place invite us to question whether all of this might only be happening in Michael-David’s mind.
Daniel Allen Cox: It occurred to me shortly after finishing the book that there is practically no basement and indeed very few wolves. In the first draft, I referenced an obscure cultural figure because I felt they provided clues to the story. Now I no longer know what the reference means.
I’m OK with that. Actually, it thrills me. So in terms of what the basement means, your guess is as good as mine. Yes, Michael-David imagines a lot of stuff, but I don’t know how far into reality that extends. I guess I’ve chosen not to know. Working in semi-darkness like this keeps me engaged with the work.
EDGE: Both Michael-David and Radek, the main character from "Krakow Melt," are gay, but their stories are not at all what we are familiar with seeing in gay literature. Are you looking to expand on the depictions of gays in literature?
Daniel Allen Cox: It’s not a conscious decision on my part to expand the scope of queer literature. I’m not aware of any kind of mission like that when writing.
What I’m acutely aware of is that it pleases me to write about unusual relationships, or unusual aspects of mundane relationships. I think truth about the connections between us are best revealed accidentally through these kinds of interactions, sometimes twisted and always murky.
"Basement of Wolves" is published this month by Arsenal Pulp Press in trade paperback. $15.95. ISBN 978-1-551-524-467. arsenalpulp.com