By Max Gray on Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015 at 9:05 am
Frank Cassese’s debut novel is a harrowing account of a young man’s relationship with his adored sister. Ocean Beach (No Record Press, 2014) explores the porous boundary between love and obsession from the point of view of Peter, a disaffected son of distant Italian-American literati, whose unchecked idealism threatens to poison his reality. When does love become destructive? Cassese’s introspective book occupies itself with this question and other, more troublesome questions about guilt and existentialism. In an interview with English Kills Review, Cassese discusses the writing process that resulted in his first novel.
Max Gray: The quotes prefacing each chapter are telling. Did you seek these particular quotes out after the fact, or did they play a role in inspiring the story?
Frank Cassese:The quotes found their way to the chapter headings afterwards. In fact, I didn’t even have some of them until the book was completely finished. As I was rereading and rewriting the novel, I found certain lines from some of my favorite books burrowing into my head, and I felt they nicely captured the essence of the coming chapters, or at least spoke to the atmosphere of each chapter in a specifically targeted way. I see them as borrowed epigrams foreshadowing what’s to come.
Also, since Peter’s being is so deeply informed by literature and philosophy, his existence shaped from the beginning by the written word, I think these literary references give a kind of snapshot into just how thoroughly his psyche has been imbued with this aspect of culture. In some sense, Peter himself might have chosen these lines to help tell his story, as though enlisting the aid of the great writers and magnificent minds who have in many ways been more of a family than his actual family.
Gray: Foreboding and foreshadowing are omnipresent in Ocean Beach. Did you know how this story would end before you started? How did the plot germinate?
Cassese: I knew before I started that the story would end where it began, with Peter sequestered in his room and Severine dead. The reader learns early on—as early as the end of the first chapter—that Severine has killed herself, which I think raises more questions than answers and ultimately propels the narrative forward. At least it did for me in writing it. I had a path in my head down which I wanted the novel to go, but there are always all sorts of detours and unseen turns that you’re forced to make in order to get where you think you want to go. In the end, you get where you need to go, even if it’s not exactly where you thought you’d end up.
And yes, foreboding and foreshadowing are rife in the novel. Human beings exist in a kind of perpetual limbo of the present, weighed down by a concretized past and an always uncertain impending future. No one can truly live in the now, so we’re constantly on the lookout for clues as to how things will turn out, although many times what actually happens plotwise—in life as in fiction—is not what was foreshadowed, and certainly not what we wanted. With Ocean Beach, as I moved from point to point, jumping around in space and time as the siblings’ history unfolded, I found myself filling in gaps and leaving other spaces untouched—it’s often these nebulous, open-ended spaces that speak the loudest. Again, with respect to foreshadowing, I think there is a strain of fatalism running through the book, especially because Peter is telling the story well after the facts. From this vantage point, he can see the causal links, he can see how the dots connected, even if these connections were unclear as he was living through them.
Gray: How did your philosophy background inform the book?
Cassese: The book is very much informed by my interest in philosophy—or more accurately, by my love for it. I am not a professional philosopher; I don’t teach philosophy and I don’t write it, though I think that all serious fiction takes flight from the foreground of philosophy. Ocean Beach is at heart a love story (a twisted and tortured one, which is the only kind I have any interest in, though that’s a whole other tangent), and I believe with Plato that “anyone who doesn’t take love as a starting point will never understand the nature of philosophy.” But when I say a love story, I don’t mean it in any conventionally romantic sense; I mean it in a philosophical sense. The love that the book is dealing with is pure mystery. It is love in Plato’s sense, one that transports the stricken soul into other realms, into the transcendent, the universal, into the realm of ideas. The very word philosophy has love in it, derived from the Ancient Greek philosophia: the love of wisdom. Peter’s love for Severine, obsessive and enslaving as it is, is akin to the philosopher’s love for wisdom, a thirst for whatever scraps of knowledge can be gleaned out of the privation of human existence. In the same way the philosopher tries to understand the world and his place in it through the study and practice and love of philosophy, so does Peter feel that his love for his sister unites him with something greater, some deep mystery of being that can only be accessed through this love and its expression.
Gray: At one point Peter admits, “I want desperately to live. I always have. I just don’t know how” (331). Do you consider the novel to be a form of confessional?
Cassese: There are definitely confessional aspects to the novel, and the concept of Catholic guilt certainly plays a role, even though everyone in the family is an atheist. That’s the thing about Catholic guilt: You can be a non-practitioner, you can be a complete unbeliever, but sometimes it’s just in the blood, in the genes, and there’s no escaping it. Peter is persecuted by the sinfulness of feelings he can’t control, and haunted by this primal, inherent sense of self-loathing that really just hangs over him like a perpetual rain cloud, a shadow he can’t come out from under. So, yes, he is confessing, though he is not necessarily repenting for anything. Even if he is sorry for some of what he’s done and regretful of the outcome, if given the chance, he would surely do it again. There’s that sense of fatalism again. Nietzsche’s circle of eternal recurrence. And as far as wanting to live, part of what he wants is to live a life free of this guilt, unencumbered by the crippling sense of doubt and despair and self-abasement that follows his every step. He wants to be free, emotionally and metaphysically above all, and because he believes this to be impossible, he cannot break the cycle of suffering.
Gray: How did you decide on 1st person and the speaker – Peter?
Cassese: Partly because Ocean Beach was my first experience writing a novel, I suppose, it felt natural to write it in the first person, as though I could inhabit the character, speak through him and have him speak through me. It was the best way to say what I had to say and tell the story I had to tell, which unfolded for me through Peter’s eyes. Of course, I am not Peter, any more than Flaubert is Emma Bovary. And yet, as Flaubert famously admitted: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”
It’s always a slippery slope when it comes to authors being associated with first-person narrators. I remember reading how sometimes at parties people would be surprised to find Nabokov with Vera, an “age-appropriate” wife. So strong was the association between him and Humbert that some apparently expected to see a 12-year-old nymphet on his arm. And countless volumes have been written on the identity of Proust’s narrator in À la recherche du temps perdu, drawing all sorts of parallels—many of them hard to deny—between the lives of Proust and his real-life social circle and the characters in La Recherche. While ultimately all that conjecture is just academic arm wrestling and fodder for biographical speculation, there’s no denying that elements of the author necessarily slip into his characters—especially in first-person narratives—despite one’s best efforts to avoid this, or maybe precisely because it was intended.
In short, Peter’s tormented voice was the one in my head before I even started. It was his story, and it had to be told by him. The immediacy of first-person narration drove the whole thing forward for me, and since it is such a personal and intimate story, I felt it had to be told by the one at the center of the storm.
Gray: The voice is distinctive and noticeably discontented – almost a splice of Roth’s sexuality, Camus’ nihilism, and Dostoevsky’s neuroticism. How did this combination come about?
Cassese: It’s fantastic that you’ve singled out three of my major influences, and there is a very clear answer to that question: Camus and Dostoevsky are two of the writers I cut my teeth on, and Roth was among the first contemporary novelists whose work I felt a real connection to. The Stranger, Notes from Underground, and Portnoy’s Complaint are three of my all-time favorite novels, and they were each in their own unique way very important to my development as a writer. I think there is a clear lineage running through these writers, with specific reference to their strong, singular voices and their thematic preferences, and the three concepts you’ve mentioned (nihilism, neuroticism, sexuality) are as central to my interests as a novelist as they are to my tastes as a reader—although I might qualify sexuality as perverse or transgressive sexuality. We all grow out of the soil of our influences, mixing whatever newness or originality we have to offer with all those ingested ingredients that made us want to create in the first place. The three great writers you cited are way up there on my list, so I’m not surprised—more flattered, actually—if you’ve detected traces of their influences seeping into Ocean Beach.
Gray: Peter is misanthropic, like many great characters from literature. Do you see him as a tragic figure? One deserving of our sympathy?
Cassese: Yes, I absolutely do see Peter as a tragic figure, but I absolutely do not think him deserving of sympathy. What I mean is, he is not telling his story in the hopes of finding friendly, sympathetic ears. I don’t believe in the mostly American need for sympathetic or likeable characters in fiction. I have a French novelist friend who calls this The Forrest Gump Syndrome, our national obsession with the loveable underdog, the guy you want to root for because he’s just so nice and loveable and naively righteous and deserves a break from the hard-hearted world. Consider the protagonists from three major works of the authors you cited above: Meursault from Camus’ The Stranger, Dostoevsky’s Underground man, And Roth’s Alexander Portnoy. These are iconic, immortal characters, and they are not nice guys. They are neither sympathetic nor likeable. They all do some pretty deplorable things, and they’re pretty unapologetic about them. I’m not saying they are completely devoid of sympathetic qualities; I’m saying they don’t have to be sympathetic characters to be great characters. What matters to me is that the character is compelling, interesting, and complex, even if he is radically and tragically disinterested in his own existence, as Meursault is, even if he is a self-hating, guilt-ridden, unrepentant sex addict like Alexander Portnoy, or a misogynistic and misanthropic miser like the Underground Man. What makes a character memorable is how uniquely human he is, and his flaws, however profound and shameful, however loathsome and unredeemable, might not make him sympathetic or likeable, but they do make him, to borrow again from Nietzsche, Human, All-Too Human. That’s what I look for in fiction.
Gray: How will Ocean Beach influence your work in the future?
Cassese: Interesting question. First of all, I’d never written a novel before Ocean Beach, so the experience was completely new and at times daunting. While my enthusiasm was high, my discipline was sketchy, and I had a hard time keeping a consistent schedule, which I’ve since learned is vital to the writing process, at least for me. When I was younger, I subscribed to the idea of waiting for the muse and not sitting down to work until some mystical force stirred me to do so. I remember reading Plato’s Ion, where Socrates says that “ poets are nothing but interpreters of the gods, each one possessed of the divinity to whom he is in bondage,” and I think I took that more literally than I should have. Or maybe that was just an excuse for avoiding the fact that writing is damn hard work. I had this ridiculous romantic notion that I should only try to put words on the page when I felt divinely inspired, and that when this inspiration came the sentences would somehow flow out of me with almost magical ease. Consequently, there were more days when I just did nothing other than wait, until I came to understand that writing is much more about sitting there and struggling to create than it is about waiting for some imaginary muse to speak through you. It’s about the daily torture of staring down that “gaping page,” as DeLillo puts it, and killing yourself to find the right words to put on it. That’s not to say that inspiration isn’t crucial, but without tireless dedication and perseverance, the gift of the muse is an empty promise.
That’s a major takeaway from the writing of a first novel: getting to know how to write a novel. Although I’ll never experience the pain and joy of labor, I like to think that writing a debut novel is somewhat analogous to giving birth to one’s first child and experiencing a pain that you never could have imagined, along with the subsequent joy. Despite all the intense suffering, the long periods of strain and sacrifice, when you’re done and your creation is out there in the world, you can’t help wanting to go through it all over again.
Ocean Beach is available from No Record Press.
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