Every Kind of Love Going – Chicago Review of Books

    Every Kind of Love Going – Chicago Review of Books


    It’s a dream many of us have had. Stepping through the gauzy curtains of the subconscious, we emerge in an unfamiliar place — a school, a restaurant, a church we’ve never attended — and, after an apprehensive look around, are approached by a strange person who calls us by name. Cue dread, perhaps even terror.

    This is the dream, or the reality, or the fable (or all of the above) of Sarah Perry’s first novel After Me Comes the Flood. Originally published in 2014 by London’s — in this case, aptly-named — Serpent’s Tail, it is now being released in the States by Custom House. Perry subsequently went on to publish the lauded novels The Essex Serpent and Melmoth.

    Within Flood’s pages, we dream-weavers are personified by depressive bookshop owner John Cole. Wanting to visit his estranged brother on a whim, John drives out of murky London only to suffer a car breakdown that forces him to seek assistance on foot. After a short walk in a dense wood, he comes upon a strange house. There, a girl appears and welcomes John by name, quite happy he’s come. 

    In the depths of her home, John is introduced to a collection of folks who also welcome him warmly. Confused, yet in strange and sudden need of acceptance, he elects to stay, even though he knows the inhabitants have mistaken him for another. Who these people are, where they come from, and why they all live together is the focus of the narrative, told largely by John himself as he adapts to his new environment and gradually learns his roommates’ stories and other mysteries. 

    After Me Comes the Flood is a novel that offers no easy answers to its epistemological questions. The world we inhabit, it suggests, is one we need to piece together, one indecipherable clue at a time. (I may not be out of line, however, to suggest that a knowledge of Old English poetry might be helpful.)

    I spoke with Sarah Perry about writing, love, the Gothic tradition, and After Me Comes the Flood.

    Ryan Asmussen

    I have to begin by telling you that we share the same birthday, November 28! That makes us Sagittarians. Have you ever given any serious consideration to astrology? I’m betting you didn’t expect this as your first question!

    Sarah Perry

    It is an excellent date for a birthday, and I always used to take a certain amount of pleasure from the fact that it is also the birthday of Anna-Nicole Smith and William Blake! I pay no attention at all to astrology — I have always been interested in astronomy, and recently bought myself a telescope — but I don’t feel any particular contempt towards it. I think of it as being a little like the use of Tarot cards, which I occasionally go in for: I do not think there is anything in the least magical about it, but I do think that our ability to take meaning and consolation from these things is as near to magic as we need.

    Ryan Asmussen

    After Me Comes the Flood came out in Great Britain in 2014 as your debut. As you prepare for its American release, does anything new strike you about your tale? Do you have a different sense of its strengths, for example, or a new perspective about what it says about our harried post-modern life?

    Sarah Perry

    For a very long time after its publication — years, really — I couldn’t read it, or think too deeply about it. I think I have a propensity to feel a strange kind of shame around my work in the immediate aftermath, as if I have been caught out undressing, or overheard in a private conversation. But I have been looking over it recently and feel a kind of maternal fondness for it, or at any rate for the woman who wrote it, who now seems to me to be some kind of distant child! What particularly interests me is seeing that despite my determination to write a different kind of novel each time, one cannot escape oneself, and all my current preoccupations are there, even if only tentatively. Faith! Madness! Sickness! Landscape! Desire! It takes a good while to begin to understand oneself as a writer, I think, and then one has a choice: either accept it, and work towards the most refined and sophisticated and tough version of that, or fret about it, and try to escape it. 

    Ryan Asmussen

    The novel offers us an array of intriguing characters — Elijah, Eve, Alex, Hester — around any one of which you could have written a novel. Did you ever during composition feel pulled in other directions by a particular character, so much so you had to realign the narrative back to John?

    Sarah Perry

    I confess I did not: I was very determined to inhabit almost totally the mind of John Cole. In fact, this was a problem for me in the novel’s first draft, which became claustrophobic: I was so married to the idea of having the reader live inside the main character that it became frustrating. So, I allowed myself to slip inside Hester and Elijah and so on, and come to know them. But it remained important to me to focus on John, since the initial idea for the book was that the reader would be carried inside him, that they would experience his confusion and his seduction and his unease. In the end I, too, was inside John, and I think I could not have written too much more about the other characters, since I hardly knew them any better than he did. I do recall, though, becoming very attached to Elijah in particular, and he became a very rare instance of my writing with a direct reference to myself: his loss of faith, and the strange way he lost it, mirrors very closely what happened to me.

    Ryan Asmussen

    Cole seems on the surface to suffer from a genuine case of existential ennui, but I would argue that underneath his sad propensity to drift, he makes clear-cut decisions throughout the story. He arrives, and he stays, and he leaves. How in control do you see him to be? What might Cole learn, if anything?

    Sarah Perry

    I once absolutely appalled the audience at a recording of a BBC Radio 4 book club by declaring that my characters are not real, but plot devices: a gasp swept the room like a cold wind. But this is perfectly true, and it does not mean that I am not fond of them, and do not in the end come to believe in them, but it does mean that from the outset they are created to carry out a certain task. So, for John Cole, it was essential that he did both of those things: that he contained a kind of loneliness and ennui — or he would not have shut up shop and left; he would not have been so easily seduced — and he needed also to have a propensity to make instant and probably quite foolish decisions, or he would never have entered the house, and it would have been a short story and not a novel. I suppose the task for a novelist is to try to achieve both of those things: to have a distinct purpose in mind, and to match that with a recognizable psychology. He does learn, I think — tentatively of course, as most of us do, about love and about vulnerability. 

    Ryan Asmussen

    How does love fit into this story, for you? It shows itself in a variety of disguises, yet occasionally steps out loudly, front and center.

    Sarah Perry

    It is vital to it: it is the foundation, I think. I wanted to write about what happens when a man who is very uneasy around the idea of love — cannot recognize it, is afraid of it, perhaps has never permitted himself to feel it, for the very sensible reason that it puts one in a painful and often powerless position — is forced to encounter every kind of love going. I have always been interested in the idea that in the English language we have only one word for love — or at least only one word accorded that kind of status — and that in the Greek of the New Testament there are several words, for all the several kinds of love, and they have a kind of parity. So, in Greek one may speak of eros or philios or agape, and the idea of desire, and brotherly love, and a benevolent feeling to mankind, are all valid. So, my premise in this book — and possibly in everything I write! — is to work towards this position in which desire, and friendship, and courtly love, and romantic love, and love which is damaging, and love which is furtive, and love which is by social convention misplaced, could all be treated as vital and full of a kind of goodness. If, of course, not always uncomplicatedly!

    Ryan Asmussen

    Your work has truly reinvigorated the European Gothic tradition. I’m curious to know how familiar you are with our American Gothic and Southern Gothic traditions. Poe, Hawthorne, Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, etc. Have they ever been an influence?

    Sarah Perry

    It is with enormous shame I confess that I have read very little American Gothic. I did try some Lovecraft, but the inherent racism forbade my reading any further. That being said, I am devoted to Shirley Jackson — the opening of The Haunting of Hill House is dizzyingly good, as is the rest of the book. 

    Ryan Asmussen

    Kafka, as a reader, would find sure and pleasurable ground in After Me Comes the Flood. Your next two novels, for me, work more layered plots while retaining Flood’s abstract mysteries. Do you plan to return to this more stripped-down, almost metaphorical form of storytelling in the future? What are your narrative plans or wishes?

    Sarah Perry

    I am now working on my fourth novel, and I began with this idea in mind that I would work towards sparseness and elusiveness — that it would be elliptical and brief and rather sad. But it has been like writing for hours with my left hand: it ached, and it did not come out right! So, in fact what lies ahead is not a return — you cannot write the same book twice: it is not the same book, and you are not the same writer, and so on! — but a pressing onward, and a fulfilment of what has been developed in the previous novels. This takes a weird combination of humility, in accepting one’s limitations, as well as confidence, in recognizing and prizing one’s strengths.

    Ryan Asmussen

    Now, I’m not trying to catch you out on this one, but… You’ve written that your novel is “incredibly open to interpretation” and that you find this exciting. However, would you tell us if there was, say, an allegorical pattern of sorts in your mind during the writing process?

    Sarah Perry

    When I began the book, I believed absolutely that I was writing a rigorously realist novel, and it came as a shock — and not, to begin with, a pleasant one! — to find that I was thought to be writing in the Gothic tradition. The book is strange and appears allegorical because I see the world through strangeness-tinted spectacles; it all just comes out like that. That being said, if I did have an allegorical interpretation in mind, I would flatly lie about it, so here we are.

    Ryan Asmussen

    Of course, your title comes from the French, attributed to King Louis XV, though also to Madame de Pompadour: après moi le déluge. Have you ever considered this statement in reference to After Me Comes the Flood and your writing career? That, after this novel, there will come an unending torrent of even more successful literary work from your pen? 

    Sarah Perry

    Ha! Well, this is a delightful prospect. And it prods adroitly at an important question, which is: what is success, anyway? I have been incredibly fortunate, but it’s useful for me to think of success as self-defined and not arbitrarily bestowed by the market, or by critics. Hilary Mantel recently gave an interview in which she said that completing her Wolf Hall trilogy was like shouting from a mountaintop, because she had finally delivered what was in her. I suppose that is what success will look like — that shout.

    Ryan Asmussen

    Lastly, do you expect or look forward to critical ways of reading this story that you feel could be particularly American, as opposed to British or European?

    Sarah Perry

    I have sometimes found that American audiences are both more familiar with, and less squeamish about, books which have themes that touch on ethics and religion. There is a certain mistrust and squeamishness around religion in particular in the UK — or at any rate a lack of facility with the language and storytelling and tradition — which seems to be less of a barrier in the US. So, this is going to be an interesting few weeks! 

    Fiction
    After Me Comes the Flood
    By Sarah Perry
    Custom House
    March 17, 2020



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