Bruce Bauman's novel Broken Sleep is sprawling, complex, wildly imaginative and unflaggingly emotional. It has an astonishing range, not only in theme but structure, which becomes all the more impressive when Bauman admits, below, that he does not believe in using outlines.
Brad Schreiber: You open the book with an event in New York involving Salome Savant, the avant-garde artist mother of main character Moses Teumer, during an explosive happening called "Art is Dead". You also have Salome create an installation called "Electroshock Ladyland," a twisted homage to Jimi Hendrix involving a mixture of his version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and electro-convulsive therapy. Tell me about your view of modern art, its commodification and the line between the avant-garde, the offensive and madness.
Bruce Bauman: First off, I don't think there is an avant-garde anymore, not in the way the term was used in the past. The In-Crowd is now the Out-Crowd. Years ago, my student Stephanie Sabo was trying to formulate what constituted the avant-garde, and she came to the conclusion we need a new definition or a new phrase for avant-garde. I agree. Many things that are called cutting edge are just third-rate rehashes of what has come before and without any redeeming beauty or insight.
Years ago, the late Arthur Danto wrote in The Nation, while reviewing a Rothko retrospective, that for him, Rothko and his ilk were the last artists for whom beauty mattered, that art is all about meaning. That's not art. That's philosophy. That's when I realized the art world and I had come to an impasse. That doesn't mean there are no artists who aren't on the edge and making beautiful work with meaning, just not that many who are showing in big galleries or museums who I admire all that much. Most of them would do well in advertising and a lot of gallerists and museum execs could be CEOs selling f-ing widgets...
Being intentionally offensive is juvenile 90 percent of the time. Be true to yourself and if the art offends, then great. That should never be the intention. There are thousands upon thousands of "mad" people who do not make art. I had some reservations about Salome being an artist and mad. But that's what she and the story demanded. I don't fight with my characters.
BS: How did you approach the highly complex structure of multiple narratives and timelines when you were outlining Broken Sleep and did it cause you to lose sleep?
BB: I don't outline. I think it's a terrible idea for fiction. You have to let yourself be open and let the characters choose what they're gonna do. Once you outline, it becomes harder to let go. I'm lucky that I could keep much of it in my head. I keep notebooks with ideas. After the third or fourth rewrite I just did a thing, if I knew it: the birth and death of each character. I started on Salome's CV and The Insatiables discography.
I did have separate folders for the main narrators, which were in a linear progression for them, and then the main narrative with the integrated narratives. I kept moving chapters around and I had great help from Anthony Miller, Allen Peacock, and my editors at Other Press: Anjali Singh and most of all, my main editor, Terrie Akers.
I often awoke in the middle of the night with ideas. That is fun, though.
BS: Your love and knowledge of the music industry is evident, not only in the story of The Insatiables but your writing of their lyrics and even a faux discography of the band. What is it in your personal history that enabled you to explore the world of rock music with such authenticity and passion?
BB: Rock 'n roll has been my passion since I was maybe four years old and my cousins, who were eight and 10 years older than me, turned me on to the music of the late 50s and early 60s. I started seeing shows when I was 14 at the Garden, Fillmore East and the clubs that sprang up in the Lower East Side in the 70s. I was good friends with David Schulps and Ira Robbins, who started the Trouser Press back in the early 70s. They're two of the best music writers ever. I still love reading whatever Ira writes... I got to see the inside workings at Casablanca, RCA, A&M and CBS/Sony as well as meeting bands and managers. I was always taking mental notes.
BS: Secrets and paranoia play a large part in the book, regarding paternity, health, sexual affairs and more. What is your perception of the changing rules of privacy in society?
BB: There are no rules. There is no privacy. When I was a young kid, six or seven maybe, and I jerked off watching reruns of Sheena (Queen of the Jungle) and other programs with hot women, and no one was at home, I thought, what if they see me through the TV? I was always paranoid. But now, it's no longer paranoia. So kids, be careful.