Excerpted from The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Copyright © 2001 by Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Charles Baxter is the author of the novels The Feast of Love (nominated for the National Book Award), The Soul Thief, Saul and Patsy, Shadow Play, and First Light, and the collections Believers, A Relative Stranger, Through the Safety Net, and Harmony of the World. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Q: The Feast of Love is written from the first-person perspective of a character named "Charlie Baxter." First, is this character you? And second, how did you come up with this idea?
A: The essence of that character—the insomnia, the waking-up without knowing where he is or who he is, the fact that he's a writer—that's all me. "Charlie Baxter" lives on my street in Ann Arbor, where he walks the same paths I walk on, he has the same dog, he even sounds like me when he opens his mouth and talks. But at the bottom of the stairs in his house is a mirror that I don't own, an imaginary mirror, and everyone he meets or talks to is imaginary. "Charlie Baxter" suffers, he tells us, from "identity lapses," as every novelist does.
I came up with this idea out of sheer desperation. I was stuck on a new project, which I wanted to be a love story of some sort, and I didn't know how to go about it, or even how to start it. So I began by using my own insomnia, and a nighttime walk I took once down to the vacant lot at the corner of our street. I heard voices coming from someone's house, and I thought of that line from Shakespeare, "the night air is full of voices,"and I thought: I'll write a novel with voices, a sort of Midsummer Night's Dream in which people are paired off with the wrong partners at first, and then are paired off with the right partners later, and everyone will tell their stories to Charlie, who will be this shadowy listener, like the reader. Like a friend, a therapist, or a detective.
Q: Did you witness anything else in the novel directly?
A: Well, my son and my wife and I were once bicycling on a weekend, and we bicycled into the Michigan football stadium in the afternoon, and we saw a couple, partially clothed, down on the fifty yard line, making love in broad daylight.
Q: How did your son react?
A: He asked what they were doing down there. He was about ten years old. I told him they were kissing.
Q: Edmund Morris recently got a lot of flack for creating a fictional character bearing his name in his Reagan biography—are you worried you might get a similar response for using this unique technique?
A: Not really. For one thing, I wasn't writing an official history of a person or time, except an imaginary history, which is what fiction does. My book advertises itself as a novel, right on the title page, and there's one of those disclaimers about all the characters being fictitious, and any coincidence between them and real people living or dead being coincidental, etc. Besides, I'm not in the novel all that much. I slip into the identities of the characters, the way a novelist is supposed to, and if you really wanted to find out about me from this book, you wouldn't find out very much.
Q: Why not?
A: Because I like to think that I'm pretty ordinary as a human being. I've been married for twenty-five years, and I drive a four-door sedan around town, and try to pay the bills on time. My characters are much, much more interesting than I am.
Q: How so?
A: They're funnier, sexier, more desperate, more beautiful, much more violent and abusive, more talkative, more opinionated, even more eloquent than I am--much more suited to a love story than I am. They're on the prowl for love, all of them, their voices raised.
Q: Why do you think up characters like this? What's the eternal appeal of love stories?
A: Love stories combine, like most good stories, excitement and interest. A good love story starts with an air of excitement (stage one) that moves into interest and complication (stage two), once you get to know the person. The act of love at its various levels becomes an act of knowing someone. Love stories that try to stay at the level of pure excitement turn into a form of pornography. As for the characters, the person could be a clerk in a coffee shop or a litigation lawyer or a professor of philosophy or a meter maid. Everybody's love life is interesting, no exceptions to that rule. The trick is in avoiding sentimentality.
Q: There's a lot of sex in your book, although it's not particularly explicit, except here and there…
A: I tried to make it bawdy--that is, laced with humor--rather than romantic, you know, with the violins and the soft focus and the exclamation points and the bittersweet weeping. Chloé loves love, for example, but she has a good sense of humor. So does Bradley, for that matter. Diana doesn't, but she's a lawyer after all. There's a wide range of character in this book, a spectrum.
Q: Charlie, you're probably best known as a short story writer. Do you have a preference between writing novels and stories?
A: I love them both, but my stories look like regular stories; however, my novels don't seem to look like anyone else's.
Q: Why not?
A: My novels are like long trips that you take on a commuter airline. There are a great many landings and take-offs, a few stops in-between.
Q: You mean that there are a lot of stories within the novel?
A: Yeah. Some of the chapters started as short stories. Bradley's trip to the Jackson Cascades began that way. (The place really exists, incidentally. They were playing Mantovani the evening I went there, and they were selling miniature fly swatters.)
Q: Why do you have so many individual stories inside the novel?
A: Because I like novels that stop to tell individual stories, novels that slow down, novels that can pause long enough in the middle to give you, for example, a cure for dandruff or a recipe for beef burgundy. I don't like to be rushed. I once tried to write conventional novels and failed miserably. As a result, my novels are mosaic-novels. I write them the only way I can. I ended up imagining this one as a collection of wheels, or gears, turning separately, and then coming together, so that they all meshed at the end. Like a watch, that tells time.
Q: Is there an over-arching theme to The Feast of Love?
A: Yes. Love invites comedy and happiness through one door, and violence through the other door. You have to be careful which door you open. People who are successfully in love are often comic, and people who are desperate for love are often crazy and dangerous, both to themselves and to others. There is no madness like the madness of love. Also, it is not true that love always makes you happy. It gives your life a size and scale, but it does not always make you happy. Sometimes it makes you profoundly and truly miserable. You wouldn't always guess that if you just watched TV and the movies.
Q: Your stories have been compared to those of a short story master, Raymond Carver--can you respond to this?
A: I'm flattered, but we're very different. Or, rather, this: his characters are more often desperate than mine. The weight on their souls seem to be greater. Alcoholism plays a greater role in his stories. I was the reader for the audio version of "Where I'm Calling From" for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and I had to put more weight on, in my voice, for the story to sound right. I had to sound more weighed down than I usually do. Lots of pauses between sentences.
Q: The character Chloé (or as she says it, Chlo-ay) is such a strong, independent, and unique young woman. Reading her thoughts in The Feast of Love is like talking to a real person. What was the impetus for her character?
A: I wish I knew. You can't just will characters into existence. One day I sat down at the word-processor and her voice came to me, fully forward, fully formed, and I started laughing, and I began to write it down. Every time I sat down to do a Chloé chapter, I could hear her as clear as day. Of course, I've had students who talked a bit like her--we all know people a little like Chloé--but what knocked me over was the force of her character once she got started. I'd be driving my car, and I'd hear something she might say. "That boy befriended me. I suppose I made a man out of him, but that doesn't seem like much of an accomplishment." I was just outside Windsor, Ontario, near the customs booth, when she said that.
She wasn't that much more real to me than any of the other characters, but Chloé has the advantage of being young, sexy, and slangier, more open and colloquial. She'll tell you anything, absolutely anything about herself She has no shame. She's shameless. She's proud of her shamelessness. I love shameless people. That's useful in a character.
Q: Who was the hardest character to get on the page?
A: Diana. She's smart and she's mean, and most of the time, she doesn't exaggerate. She's a somewhat unsympathetic character, but I wanted readers to be interested in her, even a little sympathetic to her, despite all her sharp edges.
Q: Is she a part of you?
A: Anybody is a part of anybody, if you listen, if you invite them into your psyche.
Q: The Feast of Love has been described as A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Ann Arbor. Can you elaborate?
A: The comparison is not exact, because the plots are different. There's no Puck, no amateur theatricals in Feast. But my novel is about midsummer moonstruck love-madness in its various forms, and it's an oral history, this story: everybody is talking all of the time, talking their heads off, just like a play happening in front of you, maybe in your own home town. I like the sound of people talking. Sadness and happiness are mixed in the novel in about equal measure. Besides, A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of those plays that can happen almost anywhere, at least metaphorically. You can't say that about Julius Caesar or MacBeth, but you can say that about several of Shakespeare's romantic comedies.
Q: Finally, The Feast of Love deals with love on so many levels; it is the search for what everyone ultimately wants. It captures so many moments-do you imagine these moments, create them yourself, so to speak, or are they based on real experiences or stories you've heard?
A: Vivian Gornick recently published a book called The End of the Novel of Love. Her claim, so far as I understand it, is that we do not go to love stories in fiction for the source of meaning anymore, as say, Jane Austen's readers did, or even as Scott Fitzgerald's readers did, and that perhaps we do not try to make love itself a source of meaning in our lives at all much anymore. She says that's all over. Perhaps she's right, but I think the claim is too large, and because it's too large, it's wrong. The truth is that I don't think people change that much from generation to generation. Hairstyles change, clothes change, manners change, but people go on looking for love, no matter what. As long as there are stories, there are stories about love, just as there will always be gossip. If love doesn't provide meaning to your life, what will? Money? Faith? It's like that game, "Careers." You get to choose among money, fame, or love. I'd take love. (Okay, I wouldn't refuse the money or the fame, if you offered it.)
A woman came up to me at a party in December, having heard about my book. She wanted to talk about love, and in the course of our conversation, she said, "My whole life has been about loving one man. That's what I wanted, and that's what I eventually got." What was interesting was that "eventually." For some people, love matters a great deal; it's at the center of their lives. For others, it doesn't matter so much. It may even look frivolous, just an emotion on the way to other, more important emotions. It's always mattered a great deal to me--I wouldn't have written this book otherwise.
I had to imagine my way through this book. None of these events occurred to me in actuality; they just occurred to me, imaginatively, day after day and night after night. As a writer, I'm restless, as writers must be--I'm plagued with sleeplessness, and it's as if these characters are within me, clamoring for expression. The odd thing is how these stories come out of nowhere. They come out of nowhere, and then they start to seem more real to you than your own actual life.
1. As the book opens, the character Charles Baxter leaves his house for a walk in the middle of the night. As he passes an antique mirror at the foot of the stairs, he describes the mirror as "glimmerless," a word he has used to describe himself [p. 4]. What does he mean by this? At the end of the novel, as dawn arrives, he tells us that "all the voices have died out in my head. I've been emptied out. . . . My glimmerlessness has abated, it seems, at least for the moment" [p. 307]. What is the real Charles Baxter suggesting about the role of the author in The Feast of Love?
2. Does Baxter's decision to give the job of narration over to the characters themselves create a stronger sense of realism in the novel? Does it offer a greater possibility for revelation from the characters? What is the effect of this narrative technique on the reading experience?
3. Does Bradley become more interesting as the novel unfolds? Kathryn says of him, "He turned himself into the greatest abstraction" [p. 34]. His neighbor Harry Ginsberg says, "He seemed to be living far down inside himself, perhaps in a secret passageway connected to his heart" [p. 75], while Diana says, "What a midwesterner he was, a thoroughly unhip guy with his heart in the usual place, on the sleeve, in plain sight. He was uninteresting and genuine, sweet-tempered and dependable, the sort of man who will stabilize your pulse rather than make it race" [p. 140]. Which, if any, of these insights is closest to the truth?
4. The novel takes its title from a beautiful, light-filled painting that Bradley has made and hidden in his basement. When Esther Ginsberg asks him why there are no people in the painting, Bradley answers, "Because . . . no one's ever allowed to go there. You can see it but you can't reach it" [p. 81]. Does the fact that Bradley has been able to paint such a powerful image suggest that he is closer to attaining it than he thinks?
5. Why does Chlo? go to see Mrs. Maggaroulian, the psychic? Is the fortune-teller's presence in the novel related to Harry Ginsberg's belief that "the unexpected is always upon us" [pp. 290, 302]? How might this belief change the way one chooses to live?
6. What are Diana's motivations for marrying Bradley? Does her reasoning process [p. 138] seem plausible, or is it the result of desperation and self-deception? Is Diana, at the outset, the least likable character in the novel? How does she manage to work her way into the reader's affections?
7. Bradley is a person who baffles himself. He says, "I need a detective who could snoop around in my life and then tell me the solution to the mystery that I have yet to define, and the crime that created it" [p. 106]. Why, if his first wife Kathryn has a profound fear of dogs, does he take her to visit a dog pound? Why, if his second wife Diana is afraid of open spaces, does he take her to the wide skies and watery horizons of Michigan's Upper Peninsula? Why does he often act in ways that will compromise his happiness? Is Bradley like most people in this unfortunate tendency?
8. The characters often define themselves in strikingly economical statements. For instance, Diana says, "I lack usable tenderness and I don't have a shred of kindness, but I'm not a villain and never have been" [p. 258]; and Bradley says, "My inner life lacks dignity" [p. 58]. Do the characters in this novel display an unusual degree of insight and self-knowledge? Are some more perceptive about themselves than others?
9. In his description of the shopping mall in which Jitters is located, Bradley remarks, "The ion content in the oxygen has been tampered with by people trying to save money by giving you less oxygen to breathe. You get light-headed and desperate to shop. . . . Don't get me wrong: I believe in business and profit" [p. 110]. In what ways is Bradley not a typical businessman? How does Jitters differ from a caf? such as Starbucks? What observations does the novel make about America's consumer-driven culture?
10. Throughout literature (for example, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet), the traditional boy-meets-girl plot is complicated by the presence of a father or parents who refuse to sanction the union of the lovers. Can Oscar's father be seen in this traditional role--as a potential threat to the happiness of Chlo? and Oscar? Or does he represent something far more threatening and evil? What is his effect on the latter part of the novel?
11. Harry Ginsberg tells Bradley about a poem his mother used to recite, about a dragon with a rubber nose. "This dragon would erase all the signs in town at night. During the day, no one would know where to go or what to buy. No signs anywhere. Posters gone, information gone. . . . A world without signs of any kind. . . . Very curious. I often think about that poem" [p. 88]. Bradley takes up the idea, and begins to draw pictures of the dragon. How does the parable of the dragon resonate with some of the larger questions and ideas in the novel?
12. Speaking of Oscar, Chlo? says, "Words violate him. And me, Chlo?, I'm even more that way. There's almost no point in me saying anything about myself because the words will all be inhuman and brutally inaccurate. So no matter what I say, there's no profit in it" [p. 63]. Does Chlo? underestimate her own talent for self-expression? Do her sections of the narrative belie her opinion about the uselessness of words?
13. How would you characterize Chlo?'s unique brand of intelligence? What are her strengths as a person? Is it likely that she will survive the loss of Oscar, and the challenge of single parenting, without any diminishment of her spirit?
14. Chlo? believes that she once saw Jesus at a party; she also believes in karma and similar forms of spiritual justice. Harry Ginsberg, a scholar of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, remarks, "The problem with love and God . . . is how to say anything about them that doesn't annihilate them instantly with wrong words, with untruth. . . . We feel both, but because we cannot speak clearly about them, we end up--wordless, inarticulate--by denying their existence altogether, and pfffffft, they die" [p. 77]. Why do questions of spirituality and the meaning of human existence play such a major role in The Feast of Love?
15. In The Feast of Love, is sex an accurate gauge of the state of two people's emotional relationship to each other? If sex is an expression of Chlo? and Oscar's joy in each other, does it make sense that they attempt to use it to make some sorely needed money? Is it puritanical to assume that they are making a mistake? Why are they ill suited for the pornography business?
16. Based on what happens in The Feast of Love, would you assume that the author believes that love is necessary for happiness? Although they begin the novel mismatched, Bradley, Kathryn, and Diana eventually all find themselves with the partners they truly desire. Is it surprising that the novel offers so many happy endings? How does the tragedy of Oscar's death fit in with the better fortunes of the other characters? Why has Baxter chosen to quote Prokofiev [p. 237] to open the section called "Ends"?