Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Lars Iyer reveals the elements of Dogma, sequel to his 3:AM Novel of the Year Spurious.
Dogma, like its predecessor, Spurious, is based on real events, even if I exaggerate them when I render them fictionally. It might seem easy to remember the content of conversations from several years ago, or, if this is too difficult, to make something up that would fit into the narrative as a whole. But there are some topics that seem important to the manuscript, and which can’t be fudged.
I remember having several conversations about blues music with the real life counterpart of W. and our hosts in Nashville, when we visited the city a few years ago. Our hosts were particularly well informed, telling us about the Cherokee, Choctau and Chickasaw people, who used to inhabit the Tennessee plains, and about Andrew Jackson, who made his career as an Indian killer. And they played us Barbecue Bob, Memphis Minnie (trading licks with Kansas Joe McCoy) and Big Joe Williams (with his nine string guitar). They made us listen to early John Lee Hooker, explaining to us that Hooker played electric guitar rhythmically, that it was all about the boogie. They made us listen to Bukka White, and made us see that his guitar produced the rhythm; only when drums polluted the blues, as they put our hosts put it, did the guitar get consigned to merely following the rhythm. And as melody became separated from rhythm, there were only dead syncopations. Fuck melody!, our hosts said. Fuck drums! I remember joining in, quite persuaded. Fuck melody! Fuck drums!
Actually, the above conversation is a reconstruction. I can’t actually remember what we listened to, except for Barbecue Bob, nor the details of what we discussed, except that we concluded that drums in the blues were a bad thing. My account of the conversation is based on my subsequent reading about the blues, which I did as part of writing Dogma.
I thought that by adding to the substance of W. and my conversations with our hosts would give an evocative depth to my account of our time in Tennessee. But I knew that verisimilitude would require background reading on the blues, its history, and its greatest protagonists. So I read various books on blues music, on its historical roots and its greatest protagonists. I read about the history of the freed slaves, learning how they cleared the cane breaks and the forests of the Mississippi Delta, raising levees against the flooding river. I read about the black labourers who rebuilt destroyed railroads and repaired the levees, and took new jobs in the mines and docks. I read about the sharecroppers who tied themselves into peonage by renting land, mules and supplies from white owners, and about the new kind of slavery which came with the Jim Crow laws that segregated and disenfranchised black people. I read about the dispersal of plantation orchestras after the Emancipation; about wandering balladeers and country string bands. I read about the juke joints where freed slaves could drink and dance, and about the field hollers and work songs of the black labourers who ploughed with mules and picked cotton. I read about makeshift instruments — about baling wire become diddley bow, of jugs that become sousaphones, and about pocketknives made to run along the strings of a guitar. And I read about the deep blues of the Delta, about a music of outcasts and outsiders, which came from the poorest part of the poorest state of America, from plantations, prisons, and hamlets too small to appear on the map. I read a great deal, and it was a joy!
Only when I finished reading, having taken copious notes, could I come back to the fictional scenes I wanted to construct. I wrote a fair amount of material, but then cut it down. Verisimilitude is important, but a reader shouldn’t be buried in details. Nothing should get in the way of the swiftness of the narrative, its forward movement. After editing, when the role of the hosts in the narrative was reduced, I only used a handful of paragraphs of the material on the blues on p.29 and p.53, and a few lines given to the Memphis taxi driver on p.47. Very little remained! But the material really did seem to fit, and enhanced the sections into which I had inserted them. Viva research!
Some of Dogma came very easily: the banter between the characters; the insults that one of them, W., deals to the other, Lars; some of the skits and routines. These were fun to write. But I wanted a more serious philosophical dimension to the book, too. One possible source of this dimension lay in Hinduism. The real-life counterpart of W. has long been very puzzled about my relationship to Hinduism — I have an Indian background — just as I have long been intrigued by his Catholicism. I wanted to remember something of our exchanges, focusing particularly on the significance of sacrifice in Hinduism. This, I thought, would add an interesting metaphysical dimension to the discourse on failure that fills the novel.
So I went to the library, and read about the different kinds of sacrifices to be found in the ancient Vedic texts. I read about the horse sacrifice, when a stallion was sent out to wander through the world for a year, before being ritually suffocated. I read about the dismemberment of the horse, and the offering of its parts to different deities. I read about the divine power of the horse, harnessed by the queen’s symbolic copulation with the dead stallion, and of the king, who received this divine power in turn and whose glory was magnified by the sacrifice. I learned that, for the Hindu, to sacrifice and to be sacrificed mean essentially the same thing; that it is the self that is immolated in the sacrificial fire, even as it is the same self that is purified and becomes one with God. Light the sacrificial fire in the Hindu religion, and it is you yourself you set aflame, claimed one of the books that I was reading. You sacrifice yourself — and this reveals the continual sacrifice that is your ultimate or highest self, Atman. In this sense, the Atman is that part of you which is always being sacrificed.
I found this fascinating, and thought that there was a great deal of philosophical and comic potential in it. I wrote pages of material. But none of it would sit comfortably with the rest of the narrative. The editing process saw me take an axe to much of that material, and now all that remains of my reading on sacrifice is four paragraphs on p.32, although there are several other passages on Hindu materials in the book…
Researching Dogma was pretty arduous, although always exciting. I didn’t know when I was writing Dogma that Exodus, its sequel, which will be published next year, was going to require vastly more research — and that even a smaller percentage of the writing based on that research would end up in the manuscript! But that’s another story.