In The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, the debut short story collection by the Chicago-based writer James Tadd Adcox, the reader encounters suicidal appliances, people in search of prefab authority figures, couples failing in various ways, a house increasingly made up of tiny holes, and the sad, lonely lives of two archivists at the Hall of Classified Information. This collection of short fiction is at turns humorous, dark, mysterious, bewildering, and joyful.
Tadd, a Ph.D student in English at the University of Illinois-Chicago, recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to Gina Myers over e-mail about his new book and his editorial project Artifice Magazine, and wound up talking about taxonomy and knowledge, plagiarism and postmodernism, the connection between weird music and weird literature, and communicating with readers over Skype.
The title The Map of the System of Human Knowledge seemingly sets a lofty aim to your collection of stories. Can you discuss where the idea for the title, along with all the obsessive cataloging/mapping of titles within, comes from?
The original “Map of the System of Human Knowledge” was a system of taxonomy created by Diderot and d’Alembert for the 18th-century Encyclopédie. It aimed to be a categorization of all human knowledge. I’ve always been interested in systems that attempt, in some way, to be universal–other structures I considered for this collection include the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress taxonomy. But I feel like the Encyclopédie’s map belongs to a certain moment of Western history, when the idea that you could contain all human knowledge in a single book didn’t seem totally insane. And there’s something about the crazy ambition of that that really appeals to me. Also, around the time I was putting this collection together, I was working as a taxonomist for an internet search-engine based here in Chicago. Being a taxonomist is not, as it turns out, as glamorous a thing as it sounds like, but it wasn’t a bad job for a couple of months.
Speaking of classification, how would you label your own work: surrealist, magic realist, something else altogether?
Indeterminate? Undecided? One of the most interesting things about classifications is how much falls between the categories. I tend to think of my work as based more on tones or influences: a Barthelme tone, a sentence that slightly or entirely rips off Russell Edson, a realist tone swerving into something that doesn’t quite fit within realism. More recently I’ve been working some with cut-ups and plagiarism, and even though there’s not quite any of that in this book, there’s still that tendency, I think: wanting to play with different voices and see how they go together. So maybe “assemblages”?
I noticed the range in your book–some pieces reminded me of Borges, and other seemed to be about real people suddenly dealing with something absurd, like Edson. How did you start doing cut-ups, and what do you mean by working with plagiarism?
“Repurposing found text” is probably a better way of putting it, but I like “plagiarism”: taking someone else’s words and rearranging them or otherwise doing something new with them. Like cut-ups, but with slightly less faith in randomness. What I like about using previously-existing text in general is that writing becomes less like painting, and more like sculpture. Like, you have all the pieces, you just have to put them together in the right way. So maybe you try this piece over here, look at it for a bit, decide that actually it should go over there. It’s just a very different relationship to words.
It’s not all of what I do. Sometimes I’d rather take the painter route, and just make things up. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two. I particularly like it when I’ve gone over a piece so many times that I’m not sure what language was originally there and what language I added or replaced.
But Map of the System is kind of a proto-found-text book. I’m pretty deliberately taking voices and mixing them up, but it doesn’t include any found-text language. Or I don’t think it does. Not much, anyway.
Do you have a specific process for selecting which texts you’re going to work with, or do you leave it up to chance?
I don’t know that I have a process, usually. It’s kind of whatever I’m interested in, whatever language I find weird or striking. I like Project Gutenberg quite a bit, all those texts from the 1800s or the turn of the century. The various forms of utopianism that people were excited about in the 19th century are really interesting to me, so I find myself playing with a lot of texts about Esperanto, “social hygiene,” eugenics, Fourierism, things like that.
This all connects with the focus of Artifice, the literary magazine you launched seeking to publish work “aware of its own artifice.” At the time of its launch, did you feel there was a lack in venues for this type of work?
Not so much that there was a lack, as it didn’t seem like there was any place specifically focused on this sort of work. We were attempting to draw together a thing that we saw happening, aesthetically, a certain return to the concerns of writers and artists in the sixties and seventies, the writers typically called postmodernists. We weren’t looking for work that recreated “postmodernist” writing–we weren’t looking for Barth or Acker knock-offs–but rather, we were looking for work that represented the next move, the work that extended the tradition that we saw writers like Barth and Acker representing.
How has your work as an editor influenced your own writing?
I think that working as an editor is fantastic, both in the way it clarifies what you’re interested in as a writer, and that it helps you get a pretty good overview of what’s going on in the independent literary scene in general. The possibility of burn-out seems pretty high, though, especially if you’re working on a lot of other things at the same time. I’m planning to start looking for someone to take on the head editorship of Artifice Magazine sometime after Issue 5, so I can focus more on my own writing and a couple of other projects.
As part of your promotion for the book, you read stories to people through Skype and Gmail chat. What was that like?
Strange. Fun. It seemed maybe a little more personal or like, intimate, even, than I’d expected it to be. Various people, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn’t, were suddenly in my apartment, and I was in theirs (or their office, or wherever), and we were face to face. And I read them a story. The audience-reader relationship is very different, I think, in one-on-one readings. There’s no way to think of the audience in abstract terms–there’s no audience, really, there’s only this one person, and that person either likes what you’re reading, or they don’t.
The internet in my apartment was out for a while on Friday, so I took my laptop to a coffee shop and read to people from there, sitting at one of the tables outside. That was nice.
Do you have any upcoming promotional readings or events?
I’m going to be doing a week-long reading tour of the Midwest from August 10th to the 17th with my friends Russ Woods and Meghan Lamb, who run the journal Red Lightbulbs. Meghan’s book Silk Flowers is coming out from Aqueous fairly shortly, and Artifice is going to be publishing Russ’s debut poetry collection, Wolf Doctors. Russ used to tour as a band called Tiny Folk, and so we’re reading in a lot of venues that he knows from his band-touring days. Probably he’ll play music, too.
And then on August 25th I’m reading in Atlanta for the Solar Anus reading series, and then sometime after that I’m reading in Tuscaloosa. I’m hoping to maybe set up another couple of far-flung readings in the next few months, as well.
And you just had a table at the Pitchfork Music Festival. How did that go?
Pretty fun. I was with a Chicago-based press called Curbside Splendor in the Chirp Radio tent, so we were surrounded by people selling records and crafts and so forth. I talked to a lot of people who weren’t familiar with independent presses, who weren’t familiar with the culture of literary journals, and who seemed excited about it. I feel like there’s a lot of potential for crossover between indie literature and indie music, and explaining literature in music terms can make it a lot more accessible for a lot of people. People aren’t off-put by weird music in the same ways that they can feel off-put by weird literature, and I think that has to do with this expectation that a lot of people have that, in order to enjoy a short story or a poem, they have to understand it, be able to come up with some explanation for it. Whereas no one thinks that they have to know why someone plays a song a certain way in order to like the song.