Kathleen Alcott launched her latest novel, Infinite Home, at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn. She discussed the book with writer Valerie Luiselli. The novel focuses on the assorted residents of a Brooklyn brownstone.
Luiselli describes the novel as deeply political, and yet navigating political issues without ever addressing them directly. The most prominent issue is one of government inaction, the silent epicenter of the novel, but also it is the story of old age and how the elderly are often evicted from society.
Alcott responds that one problem common in America is the idea that people must create or discover institutions on their own. They are often not aware of institutions, or those institutions don’t even exist.
She explains that she was raised by people in California who essentially had invented themselves in the last twenty-five years. They had no history or sense of what they were doing. They had no religion or other structure. When people grew old in that community, they did not necessarily have any institutions to protect them. Her arrival in New York introduced her to people who all had history and place. The novel serves as Alcott’s way of comprehending those systems.
The characters often achieve a multi-dimensional quality and a history to them, Luiselli says calling Alcott a kind of geologist walking through lives and exposing the people’s layers.
The characters often need to do something, Alcott explains, and she builds narrative from the characters’ need. Of course, sometimes it works the other way.
Alcott says she grew up in a community of people with very liberal ideas of labor and time. She describes them as former hippies who all left San Francisco but never gave up their hippie ways.
“I was a neurotic kid,” she says, explaining that there were never any working clocks in her house. They were never set ahead for Daylight Savings Time. She was always late and all she wanted was to be on time. She would have to beg her mother to change the times because she couldn’t reach.
“You can’t invent tradition every day,” she says. The problem was the people she grew up around tried to. They had new ways of living like three-week long silent hikes or all ginger diets. Alcott says she eventually grew tired of the hedonism of California. Eventually, she says, it got to the point where she couldn’t just sit around a park eating avocados all day.
Of course after a little time in New York City, she says, she longed for the hedonism of California again.
“None of us are ever educated enough,” she says, referring to how well read writers are, and the feeling of inadequacy.
“If somethings not teaching me, I can’t read it anymore,” she says. Still, she admits sometimes she will be reading something that is teaching her something and she doesn’t realize it.
While writing Infinite Home, she read DeLillo’s Underwrold. There is a constant returning to a scene of thirty-seconds in time in the book that she says she was drawn to. It was like memory, a kind experience that kept happening but that has a limited point of view.
One of the characters, Paulie, suffers from an unusual syndrome that causes him to trust too much. Williams Syndrome is a real disease that leads to a buildup of chemicals in the brain akin to those experienced during orgasm or childbirth. He and Edith, a character who is aging, are in a persistent state of losing language. She describes them both as difficult to write because choosing the right lexicon was difficult.
The idea of Williams syndrome stuck because she was reading about in on NPR and an exboyfriend made a joke that she was always trusting people too much. She does not have the disease, but she still found it intriguing.
Writing Infinite Home lead Alcott to believe in taking a wider world view. She wanted to see past what she normally would see. “I spent all day alone in a room with people who don’t really exist.”