Bucolic is a Funny Word: An Interview with Alan Michael Parker
Alan Michael Parker’s new book The Committee on Town Happiness (Dzanc Books) is many things at once. It’s a novel, a series of linked flash fictions, a sequence of exquisitely wrought prose poems on happiness and bureaucracy, and a scathing satire about American life that makes room for stirring moments of melancholy.
Regardless of how you classify it, the book’s absurdist gags, philosophical insights, and complicated pleasures will linger long after you’ve finished the last page. I spoke with Alan via email about his remarkable book.
JJ: The Committee on Town Happiness seems to exist in its own genre, or maybe several genres at once. Cannily, there’s nothing on the book itself to classify it. Was it intentional to leave all generic descriptions off of the book? If so, what were you hoping that might do for the reader as they navigate the text?
AMP: I wish I were canny. Instead, I’m just this guy who wrote this book that doesn’t really fit genre.
Granted, I have long been interested in the idea of the novel, its middle-class origins and permutations in the English and American traditions, and the ways in which certain notions found in Aristotle’s Poetics have been transposed upon our expectations of the post-War American novel. Nonetheless, that kind of historical analysis, and the hermeneutics that result, merely preceded the writing. For me, writing a book has its own demands, with the book itself defining what needs to happen and how. I think of rewriting in this way, too—an activity in which I learn to trivialize my original intentions.
With faith in my reader: that’s how I aspire to write. And so, one of this novel’s strategies is borrowed from my writing of poems, which I’ve done for years, insofar as a poem is predicated upon faith in the reader’s attentiveness. So the plot of The Committee on Town Happiness is implied rather than dramatized, and a few of the book’s more important characters – Dr. and Mrs. Hans, for example – remain off-stage. All together, since the reader’s smart, he or she can figure out what’s what, what the characters are up to, and collect the data along the way.
JJ: Personally I like the genre ambiguity, but I imagine the Committee – who are keen on classifications of all kinds – would like to know exactly what sort of book they’re appearing in. How would you describe it?
AMP: Well, it’s a novel composed of ninety-nine stories. Some of the stories have the same titles. The narrator’s someone we know—and come to know more intimately – as a kind of chorus, the collective voice of a small town at risk, since people seem to be disappearing. Ultimately, that the Committee thinks it’s the conscience of the town provides much of the tension in the novel.
I think the Committee would vote not to be represented in or by a novel. 7-2, they would defeat the motion, with one of their members abstaining and another indisposed. (Which naturally brings up the question of those two votes: two members of the Committee vote to be represented in and by a novel? What could those two people want?)
JJ: You live in the bucolic and picturesque small town of Davidson, NC. How much inspiration did you draw from your immediate surroundings? And the happenings in the town itself?
AMP: Let’s try a few answers here, and you decide which suits:
I’m a writer: I don’t have experiences, I merely collect material.
Inspiration may be understood as the imagination’s rewriting of experience.
Isn’t the word “bucolic” a funny word? Isn’t the word “sinister” a funny word too?
JJ: There’s an interesting tension in the book between sections that stand on their own and sections that advance various plotlines (repeating sections like “The Scandal,” “The Balloon,” etc.). There’s also a subtle and powerful arc to the story. How much of that arc was there from the start of the project? Did your conception of the book change much as you wrote it?
AMP: Yes, as I wrote the book it changed and changed again. Two of the plotlines were brought to the fore in the second and third drafts, as the interweaving of the events began to denote more clearly the arc of the story.
Here’s another thought, though, in light of the word “plot”: it’s possible The Committee on Town Happiness presents ninety-nine stories about subplots that become a plot in the reader’s hands.
Mostly, a novel’s like your brain, with stuff you know and stuff you don’t.
JJ: Partway through, a group splinters off from The Committee for Town Happiness to form the secretive “Danger for Fun.” I had a nagging suspicion the author might be more sympathetic to these pranksters, but the book never wavers from the Committee’s mindset. Were you ever tempted to veer away from their perspective?
AMP: I wasn’t really tempted: I didn’t want the Committee to have proof that someone is actually out to get them. Their sad, sympathetic paranoia needed to be all their own.
“Danger for Fun” did let me work a bit with dissent within the context of a consensus-driven political environment. Do you know how when people agree in advance, they resent dissent? Yes, sir.
JJ: Throughout the book, the Committee is constantly rating things on a scale of one to four – four being the highest possible mark. They start by rating the trees and get more abstract from there. I thought it’d be interesting to have the author rate a few of the same items, along with some new ones.
Hot Air Balloons: 2
Food Trucks: 4
Sublimation (Non-Marital): 1
“Danger For Fun”: 4
Finicky Responses to Stimuli: 3
Daily Joy: 4
Humor That Leaves You Melancholy: 4
Book Readings: 4
Book Blurbs: 1
Discussing Literature on Social Media: 2
Interviews in Which I Write My Own Questions: 1
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: 3
Jonathan Franzen’s Public Persona: 1
Committee Meetings: 1
JJ: Finally, the book revolves around the question of whether happiness can be achieved – and maintained if properly managed. What personally has brought you the most lasting happiness?
AMP: Well, love’s pretty damn fun, and accountable for most of my lasting happiness. Getting rid of all of the words in my head—at least for a little while, each time I write a book—that makes me happy.
I tend to be pretty idiotic when it comes to pleasures: they make me remarkably happy. My kid, my dogs. Not so much the cat, although he’s amusing. Hitting a softball where they ain’t, that sort of thing. But my happiness seems so provisional too, as I’m happy only in the way a distressed and neurotic artist—that could be a whole bag of redundancies—is “happy.” Which means not so much. Until next time.