JOSEPH RIIPPI is the author of the novel Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (Ampersand Books). Recent writing appears in The Brooklyn Rail, PANK, Everyday Genius, elimae, Emprise Review, Epiphany, The Bitter Oleander, and Salamander. His latest book, The Orange Suitcase, is coming in 2011 from Ampersand. He lives in New York.
His contribution to RE: Telling is called “The Confusions of Young Joseph”, which is written after Musil’s The Confusions of Young Torless.
Can you talk about your interest in Robert Musil and his novel The Confusions of Young Torless? Is Musil one of your major influences?
The Confusions of Young Törless and a few short stories are all I’ve read of Musil, so he’s hardly a major influence. I came across Törless on the recommendation of a poet friend.My most recent project is a book called The Orange Suitcase that’s ostensibly about childhood and the way a person remembers it. I spent the bulk of 2009 reading a lot of fiction of that mode (Nabokov’s Speak, Memory; Coetzee’s Boyhood/Youth/Summertime trilogy; the first hundred pages of Swann’s Way, a few others that didn’t stick quite as hard). What stuck with me hardest about Törless however was Musil’s conveyance of adolescent psychological terror. Fear of sexuality, fear of violence, insecurity, embarrassment—there’s nothing more affecting until a person falls in love. The Orange Suitcase deals with that tension between, but for Re:Telling I chose to retell Törless because that’s where my head was at that particular day.
Your Joseph seems to follow in Musil’s academic footsteps—a parent-directed engineering student drawn to literature. Was this also your academic track? Are you a practical engineer drawn to the impractical practice of literature?
I went to college as a pre-med major and left an English Lit major with minors in film and women’s studies, and my father was an engineer at Boeing when I was a child so there’s a link there, too. I hadn’t thought of it in the way you just presented it, but I do take a very practical approach to writing. My work gets a lot of criticism for being too fractured, however I almost always draw up a schematic of sorts for how the narrative of a piece is structured. I fear too much fiction now, especially in the arena of independent, small press stuff, relies too heavily on language and not enough on the practicality of narrative structure. While the complaint many have about Jonathan Franzen (including myself) is the opposite, that he lacks eloquence of language and just tells a big American tale, a lot of the new flash you see out there today is all violent imagery and language games. Some amazing musical language with no narrative holding it up—it’s every bit as enticing (and yet ultimately one-sided) as Franzen. The best writing—Coetzee, McCarthy—strikes a balance between narrative and language. Art is form and content, not one or the other.
What should we know about The Orange Suitcase?
The Orange Suitcase is a book of 35 stories told in the same voice, from the same retrospective point of view, and was very nearly considered a novella because of that. (One of the blurbers did, in fact, refer to it as a novella not knowing any different). When people ask, I say it is about childhood and memory. But I also say that if I were capable of summing it up in a sentence, I would have just written a sentence. Ampersand Books will be publishing it at the end of March, along with a second edition of my novel Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! in the weeks thereafter.