Zach Savich: Your review reflects the form of Cooper’s book—“a novel in the form of a fictional journal.” What did writing in this form help you understand about the book?
Andrew Hungate: I was inspired by T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death, in which Clark spends two weeks visiting and writing about a pair of Poussin paintings. A diary form allows you to play out different thoughts, and it turns out that letting go of even a tiny portion of the critical instinct to revise, research, and re-evaluate can have deep and unexpected results. When reading a review, we tend to wait for some morsel of valuation that we can take away and bury, but reading a book sometimes means living with it and walking around with it. It means much more to say a book moved you when the person listening has some sense of who you are.
ZS: You note that Cooper’s depiction of trauma and recovery leaves a lot out (“we learn almost nothing, for instance, of the source of the narrator’s hatred for his parents”). The narrator of your piece can be similarly glancing, elliptical. What do you think this style emphasizes about experiences of extremity, compared to works that purport to tell all?
AH: Literature has accustomed us to acts of confession, with no form of repository more intense than the private journal. We expect to read the human heart there. In reality, not everyone is so forthcoming. Traumatic experiences can induce silences that go deeper than writing or even thought, and for Cooper’s narrator, there are many things that are off-limits, out-of-bounds. It is refreshing to read something that does not adhere to the therapeutic stereotype.
ZS: You connect figures of isolation and affliction—who “lunge after solitude only to slam into depression”—to masculinity and to particular ways of writing. How do you see the legacy and lineage of this vision of masculinity, or its complication, in other recent works?
AH: Cooper’s narrator follows a male writerly tradition where one withdraws from society to struggle with the demons of the written page. You could view this as a scotch-infused fantasy or you could argue against this belonging to a male tradition at all—perhaps everyone has an urge to blow off to the forest and write. (Of course, very few have access to that particular form of escapism.)
So has this been complicated in recent years? As a literary form, it certainly has; Sebald has been thoroughly turned on his head and the loose change shaken from his pockets. But of the forces that drive men into solitude, into a reckoning with their self-reliance, I am less sure. Masculinity has changed quickly in our conversations but seems to retain a slow, buzzing recalcitrance in the places where it is more deeply instantiated. It struggles to find a positive context. Cooper’s narrator acknowledges that he is a cliché, for instance, and apologizes.
What I like about Ash before Oak is its lack of bravura or purpose. Instead of writing a novel that is the product and signifier of masculine courage and determination, Cooper publishes a journal wracked with self-doubt and defeat. It asks very little, and you can choose to believe it or not.