In Conversation: Alexander Boldizar
Alexander Boldizar is a man who has done many things. He graduated with a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law. He has worked as a lawyer, art gallery director, and a police-abuse watchdog. He is an accomplished Brazillian Jiu Jitsu and boulder-throwing enthusiast.
His debut novel The Ugly is an ambitious, deep, hilarious work that exists somewhere between the real and the absurd. Boldizar is able to balance humour and deep meaning to comment on law, thought, and how we construct meaning. The story follows Muzhduk, a Siberian mountain man who travels to Harvard with the goal of defending his tribal homeland with the law.
I spoke with Alexander about The Ugly, the power of the absurd, and the the relationship between reason, empathy, and compassion.
One of the quotes that I was most proud of, which ironically didn’t make it into the final blurbs for the book, was from the former president of the American Psychiatric Association and said the book “Walks the line between the real and the surreal without falling into either one.” That was my goal, I didn’t want to fall into one or the other. I want to walk that line, but not many people want to - they want to clearly be in one or the other.
It’s a fairly unique or small audience that enjoys that kind of existential satire. It’s been interesting seeing the range of reactions to The Ugly from different people.
Is that the sense that you get - That you’re writing for a smaller audience?
I do, not deliberately though. I’ve always loved continental literature - stuff like Kafka, Musil. It’s funny, because I’m not big on ethnic origin, or where you come from, but there is something about the aesthetic that seeps through. I consider myself a Canadian, not a Slovak, but having been born there and having grown up with a certain aesthetic sensibility, writers who come from there often speak to me more than Anglo-Saxon literature. I love Ulysses and a range of literature, but the people who go deepest for me are people like Kafka and Musil. Even Latin American authors like Borges, a great surrealist, stand out. Yet even there, there is a slight difference in tone between the Latin American absurdists and surrealists and the Continental authors. It’s not like I’m writing in the wrong language, but people in North America come to books with a different expectation.
I’ve had a lot of reviews, not from professionals but on places like GoodReads or Amazon, where people say “It’s just not realistic, how could Muzhduk walk from Siberia to Boston?” For me, that was something that I had never considered, because it’s fiction, you’re supposed to play. I never took any efforts to make that sort of thing realistic. You want a certain kind of internal consistency and realism on its own terms, but I think that theres a space in North American literature between literary fiction, which tends to be about psychological insight, and genre fiction, which is very much about plot - but both have to be realist . There’s a gap, which is why I think my audience is maybe smaller than if my novel could fit neatly into a genre. Neither of those labels conform to the quasi-absurdist outlook.
People assume that you make that decision based on the plot. Did your choice of style come from the plot, or did you make that decision, hoping that the plot would follow?
Option two for sure.
I had certain ideas I wanted to contrast, and a certain kind of story I wanted to tell. The plot worked itself out based off of the ideas I wanted to play off of each other. I had a general idea of the plot, but I didn’t storyboard or outline it. That’s a very long and awkward way to write a book, because you end up spending years and years revising to make it entertaining.
My approach was about clashing the mountain man personality against the sterility of Harvard. I wanted to examine different ways of thinking. The book is very much about different approaches, not to specific issues, but much more broadly to ways of thinking. The story just ended up playing out based on how the various approaches to thought played off of each other. That was the initial draft, but there was lots of revision with the plot to make a good story. You never know how effective it really is until you hear from readers or reviewers.
I was in law school when I started writing the book, and I’ve always been very logical. I started to sense that there was something missing, that there was this idea that logic was co-terminus with thinking, that logic is all there is to thinking. As frustrations to that approach to reality were building up, I was reading people like Kafka who have this ability to create an existentialist shift sideways out of those constraints.
It was people like Kafka were able to block up logic and explore other things. He’d say something like
This pen is blue, or it’s black, or it’s not actually a pen at all.
He frames you and sets up an examination of the pen’s colour and then pulls it out from under you and makes you question the whole structure on which you’ve built your assumptions, and your relationship with reality. I really admire that, because at the time I felt very restrained by rational discourse.
You need the chaos of insight and the unspeakable to balance the order of logic. People like Kafka were able to reach the unspeakable and bring it into a place where we could poke at it, even if we could never grasp it.
That was who I was a long time ago. Now, it’s almost the opposite. If you look at the political system, there’s probably not enough rational discussion. I wanted to bridge both ends of the discussion. The Buddhists have a saying, for enlightenment you need both wisdom and compassion. If wisdom is the logic, you also need the compassion. You need the chaos of insight and the unspeakable to balance the order of logic. People like Kafka were able to reach the unspeakable and bring it into a place where we could poke at it, even if we could never grasp it. I was hoping to do something similar with The Ugly.
I had similar complaints when I was in law school. Surrealism seems like a great way to subvert people’s defences and talk about aspects of their lives or thinking that they might not want to examine.
It opens up criticism or critique.
I think there’s a reason why eastern Europeans became absurdists. I don’t think that was the case a hundred years ago, but living under so many repressive regimes teaches you how to laugh at tragedy and view the absurdity of life through a different lens. It’s a fundamentally empathetic approach even though it may look heartless on the surface, because you’re poking fun at taboo subjects.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. My dad had a brain abscess, and we weren’t sure if he would make it, or what state he’d be in if he did make it. They had to drill through healthy brain tissue in order to drain the abscess, so each operation was causing new damage. My mom was there, holding his hand while he was completely unresponsive, and she was saying
“Just survive. I don’t care if I have stick a garden hose up your ass and use you as a sprinkler, just don’t die.”
The Canadian doctor couldn’t believe it. They’re used to the doctors having the gallows humour, not the patients. Yet humour lets us humanize really horrible situations. That might be culturally specific, but I think that by having that kind of slightly absurdist tinge to life, you are able to be more critical and more empathetic at the same time.
That approach helps allow you to hear things you might not otherwise be ready to confront.
That was my hope.
Even though the thematic foundations of the book are philosophical, there’s definitely a very practical element that grows out of it. I did work as a lawyer for a year. I even took a year off during school because it felt off. I found that my way of thinking was changing. It was impacting how I processed information in a dehumanizing way. You’re always trying to think in purely analytic terms. There’s a sense of the loss of humanity to be only thinking in those terms. I don’t like the forced dichotomy between emotion and reason that we often see people accept as fact. I think that deeper thinking is empathetic, it’s not sterile. The entire conversation has created binary opposites, where neither side, empathetic or logical thinking, seems to be full.
I think of myself as mostly Canadian, but I’ve moved around a lot. That still makes me feel like a bit of an outsider, with an outsider’s perspective. I was eight when we escaped. We spent six months in a refugee camp. We came to Canada, and my schooling was here until university. I went to Harvard for law school, and I lived in Cambridge, San Francisco, New York, and Tennessee. I lived in Bali for three years, on two separate occasions. I was constantly moving around. You get used to seeing cultural quirks from the outside.
The Ugly is a huge investment, of time and energy, on those themes. Do you still feel like those beliefsand ideas hold true after so long?
I think they hold true, but the intensity has lessened.
When I was a lawyer, I ended up marrying an artist. I ran an art gallery in Bali so I was surrounded by artists. The funny thing was that I started missing the crisp analytical thinking of lawyers because I started to see how little rational thinking there can be sometimes within society. The urgency of my themes lessened, but the insight still remains - the people running most countries are still the hyper-rational calculating type.
A big part of the book is authenticity, about what it means to live a thinking, authentic life. Being a father is an answer to those questions, but it’s a small answer. Maybe that’s all that’s really possible, a collection of small answers.
I think maybe it became a little less relevant to my current life. Your focus changes when you have a child, or when you become a single dad. You start thinking less about deep societal insights and focus more on paying for circus school for your son. A big part of the book is authenticity, about what it means to live a thinking, authentic life. Being a father is an answer to those questions, but it’s a small answer. Maybe that’s all that’s really possible, a collection of small answers. Getting to that point was a major struggle for me. You can’t imagine the number of agents who told me something like
I love the book, if you cut the Africa scenes
I love the book, if you cut the Harvard scenes
They wanted two separate books. The whole insight or question in the book requires that juxtaposition, and if you cut one out it would be something else entirely. So it took longer, and thank goodness for small presses, because I think they do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to trying new things in fiction.
It seems like the publishing process sometimes frustrates the actual purpose of literature and publishing altogether - presenting the public with new, entertaining, and thoughtful voices. Imagine if someone like Kafka had caved to pressure to make his fiction more normal.
Just being able to talk about The Ugly while discussing Kafka is more than I could have ever hoped for. I had lots of people suggesting big changes, with the hope that maybe I could write the book I really wanted the third or fourth time around, but the energy wouldn’t have been there.
This book was such an investment of time and energy and emotion, and it would have felt like giving up if I had taken that advice. Of course I made changes. I wasn’t purely stubborn, but I pushed back at certain points in the publishing process because I wanted to keep what I saw as the essential parts of the book.
Think about the phrase Kill your darlings. Recently I heard an author give an interview where he said that Kill your darlings was dangerous advice. Sometimes your darlings are what makes your book unique. You need to find a balance where you’re not being self-serving, but you’re also not giving up what’s core to your piece of art.
I think the fact that I spent so long on the book, that I spent so many years, really helped. When you go back years later you’re able to apply a more critical eye to the material.
The whole idea behind Kill your darlings is problematic because for the exercise to be effective, you need the one thing that is hardest for authors to achieve - perspective on their own work. You’re often too close to your own story to see things as clearly as you’d like. Time seems a great way to address that problem.
You’re still you, but you’ve had time to let go of the emotional blinders that were present when you first wrote it.
With fiction you have a much bigger debt to your audience, which means it can’t just be about your personal mythology. Nobody cares.
I’m a big believer in self-doubt. To write a book, you need to be confident enough to push through, yet you need enough self-doubt to make sure that you’re not just indulging in a personal mythology. When I worked as an art critic or with the gallery, I found that often artists could get away with that, because they’re not asking for eight or ten hours of a person’s time. With fiction you have a much bigger debt to your audience, which means it can’t just be about your personal mythology. Nobody cares.
Once you’re James Joyce, you can write Ulysses. Some people will understand it, but most people won’t. The point is that they won’t blame Joyce for not being able to get it. You don’t normally get that credit untilyou’ve earned it. You need to make the book accessible enough for people to enter and balance out the idea of authenticity by making sure that you’re doing your job as an entertainer, and not just talking about yourself. That’s what makes it fun.
The biggest obstacles in the book were my own personal blocks. I wasn’t mature enough to bridge that gap, I was frustrating my own ability to reach out. It was a huge part of my life, not just in terms of output, because you get a lot of feedback from the process of writing a novel.
What comes next?
I have a first draft of a second book, but my focus has turned to smaller things. The next book is science fiction, it’s very much a father-son story. The themes have gotten smaller and more manageable. It’s a very different book because I’m a different person as I write it now. Even editing The Ugly, I tried to be true to myself as I was when I wrote it. I didn’t try to rewrite everything from the perspective of a forty year-old. For the next book, I want something easier.
I have a feeling that my third will go back to something like The Ugly.
It seems appropriate for something like The Ugly to come third rather than second. You almost need the time for the pressure to build up again.
The word pressure is very accurate. A book like that needs pressure to even be written, never mind edited, and polished.
It makes me happy to hear the book talked about in those terms - so many reviews talk about the humour, or the satire. I never know how many of the themes really come across. I think The Ugly is deceptively difficult, because I wanted to make it accessible. It starts off fairly light and funny, with two mountain men throwing boulders at each other. It’s the last book you’d expect to get heavy. It does get there, but I think I lost some readers by doing that, so I appreciate that those ideas came across.
To find something that can hit on some really heavy themes, and have a nuanced discussion on philosophical issues, while still featuring mountain men throwing boulders at each other - I can really respect that.