Zachary Lazar with David Winner – The Brooklyn Rail

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Zachary Lazar
The Apartment on Calle Uruguay
(Catapult, 2022)

Zachary Lazar’s fictions take us to tense, elliptical spaces: a white man trying to investigate whether a Black man he’s met is innocent of murder in Revenge, Meyer Lansky’s mysterious relationship with a holocaust survivor in I Pity the Poor ImmigrantLazar’s own father’s real-life murder in Evening’s Empire. Lazar’s new novel, The Apartment on Calle Uruguay, involves a poignant and pungent love affair between two exiles: Christopher Bell, a dark-skinned Jew from Israel and Ana Ramirez, an émigré from battle-worn Venezuela. The novel takes them from a house on a pond in the Hamptons to Mexico as the two characters search for some sort of rootedness in each other’s companionship and struggle with questions of childbearing, loss, and addiction. Subtle but piercingly political, Ana and Christopher’s complicated idyll is never far removed from toxic American problems—Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Parkland, the prison-industrial complex—as Bell’s late lover’s brother is another black man locked up in jail. No human relationship, Lazar’s novel proves to remind us, can seem to escape the shadows of our times.

David Winner (Rail): You’ve set The Apartment on Calle Uruguay in the part of Long Island where you and your wife have a house, and in Mexico City, another important landmark for you, yet the characters you’ve placed there—Christopher Bell, an immigrant from Israel who is a painter, and his lover Ana Ramirez, who has fled the crisis in Venezuela—lack surface-level similarities to you and your world. Can you talk a little bit about what place means to you in the novel, why you put fictitious characters in familiar spaces?

Zachary Lazar: In 2015, after a long trip to Brazil, my wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Mexico City and I decided I wanted to put it in my next novel, partly as a way to understand why I have been so drawn to the place . I sketched out a plot about two lovers who feel pushed out of the US by cultural and political forces and end up in Mexico City. This was before Trump was elected—after that election, I thought the novel was a non-starter, it was too topical, but by the summer of 2018 I became so depressed that I started writing it anyway, simply to give myself something else to thinkabout. We happened to be on Long Island, where we have lived at least part of the time for more than twenty years, and I used our neighborhood as a setting just because it was right in front of me. If I went swimming, I wrote about that. If my friend in prison called me, I wrote about that. I was improvising, moving pretty fast, somewhat influenced by a long diaristic poem by AR Ammons called “Tape for the Turn of the Year,” where he wrote every day on a roll of adding-machine tape until it ran out. Eventually I saw that Eastern Long Island was a much richer setting than I’d realized. You have all of America there: not just the rich people everyone knows about, but working class people, a Black community, the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, recent immigrants from Latin America and everywhere else. These people are not always interacting with each other, but they’re all there together in that same little space.

Rail: Christopher’s ethnicity can be opaque, problematic for him. People mistake him for Osama bin Laden. In this strange moment in which a degree of racial awakening (white people at BLM protests) seems conjoined with incendiary racism (the novel references Charlottesville), you’ve created a character that doesn’t fit easily into any of our standard boxes. Can you talk about Bell’s ethnicity and what it represents for you?

Lazar: I think he was a way for me to write about the idea of ​​the “post-racial,” which no one now believes in. In response to Obama, whiteness reasserted itself with a vengeance. Whiteness, which I end up equating with emptiness, can only be defined by what it’s not, it’s an empty space. Bell isn’t white, but he’s not Black either, he’s brown, but without a community of others like him to nourish him with a culture. He’s just very particularly and vibrantly himself. But my point is not to enhance an ideal of the “individual.” That ideal tends to forget that there’s such a thing as history. Bell is the target of other people’s discrimination and hostility, because he’s an individual in a culture that is strongly inflected by whiteness—emptiness—in a million different ways. This is a far cry from, say, Saul Bellow, for whom “America” signified the opposite of emptiness. For him, it was fullness, as it was for Philip Roth. Bell’s stance is more like that of Stanley Kunitz, who wrote in a kind of credo: “The sands whispered, Be separate,/The stones taught me, Be hard./I dance, for the joy of surviving,/on the edge of the road.”

Rail: More than your other books, I think, The Apartment on Calle Uruguay is in many ways about a relationship. There are such poignant scenes between Ana and Christopher. Christopher’s painstaking attempts to salve Ana’s chigger bites were so moving. Did you see the novel in any way as a love story or a romance?

Lazar: Absolutely. I’ve had love stories in my other books, but they get lost in the swirl of all the other things going on. I wanted this novel to be simple, linear, no postmodern play with reality versus fiction or multiple narrators. The hard part with a love story is to find the details (like chigger bites) and the dialogue to make the reader get onboard with it. Otherwise, it’s a complete embarrassment. And it’s not a movie—you don’t get to have images of beautiful actors in great clothes in romantic locations to do the work for you.

Rail: Your last novel, Revenge, details the relationship between a white writer and a black man sentenced to life in prison for a crime that he says that he did not commit. While most of The Apartment on Calle Uruguay goes off in an entirely different direction, one angle of the plot explores similar territory. Christopher Bell speaks on the telephone and visits his late girlfriend’s brother, also an incarcerated black man. What inspired this continuance from one novel to the next?

Lazar: Since 2013, when I first went to Angola prison as a journalist, incarceration has been a part of my life—I mean my everyday life. I have several close friends who are either in prison or who were and are now out. A big part of my socializing is with these folks—talking to them on the phone, visiting them, hanging out with them. Some of them are basically family at this point. I created the incarcerated character Jesse because I was making a portrait of the America I’ve ended up living in. As Jesse’s character evolved, he had more and more to say about the book’s themes, particularly the love story. He, of course, has a love story of his own, which Bell has to learn to take seriously. The principle meaning-makers in the novel are Bell, Ana, and Jesse. I think Ana is the freest, but Jesse might be in second place, freer even than Bell.

Rail: Obviously, you do prose, but you collaborated with Deborah Luster, the photographer, on a photo essay about Angola prison in Louisiana, and have many friends who are visual artists of different kinds. Can you talk about creating a character who is a painter in a novel that dwells on visual arts? What does Christopher’s “painter’s block” represent?

Lazar: I was nervous about making him seem plausible as a painter. My painter friends Eugene Constan, Christopher Quirk, and Jameson Ellis were a big help in that effort. I honestly don’t remember why or when I decided to make him a painter—I think he may have started out as a musician. In any case, his “painter’s block” turned out to be a good way for me to work out some of my own feelings of futility and burnout as a novelist. Both painting and the novel are these ancient art forms that often seem completely irrelevant. Bell compares painting to spending his life making whalebone corsets or being a juggler on the street. Of course, the obvious response to that is, who cares? Just do it, if you want to. And he does start painting again, with success and perhaps even with a certain amount of joy, though he would never say it like that. He’s good at making marks with paint on a canvas. Totally meaningless. But he ends up leaning into meaninglessness. Of course, writing is inherently different from painting because it’s made of words. The minute you start describing meaninglessness, you’re reaching for meaning. Probably even making meaning, though that doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it yourself.

Rail: The Apartment on Calle Uruguay, while being far from didactic, seems very much of a product of these desperate times. Can you offer us anything like hope?

Lazar: After the 2016 election, I was reading a lot of Chekhov, and I noticed that in his late work, his plays, there are a lot of people who are baffled by the changing world around them. They’re prone to despair, and they have reason to feel despair because their way of life really is going to disappear, the Russian Revolution is just around the corner. But one of the reasons their world is going to disappear is because they give in so easily to despair. Just thinking about something unpleasant is enough to “fill them with despair.” And in Chekhov’s plays, he’s always sympathetic to them, but he’s also always making fun of his characters for being so fragile. He seems to be saying that despair is a luxury item.

In the 18th and 19th century, London’s chimneys were cleaned by children, sometimes as young as four, because they were small enough to fit inside tight spaces. These children often did the work naked, so that their clothes wouldn’t snag on the chimney walls, and sometimes the chimney was actually active when they were inside “sweeping.” There were no bathing facilities, so they couldn’t clean the soot off of their bare skin after the workday, which caused cancer. At night, they slept on sacks stuffed with soot they scraped from the chimneys. This was all because their parents had to sell them into servitude because they couldn’t afford to feed them. There would have been conservatives then arguing that child chimney sweeps were a regrettable but necessary evil–there was no other way to clean chimneys and if you didn’t clean the chimneys, buildings would catch fire and everyone would die. These people would have called reformers dreamers, hypocrites, bleeding hearts, snowflakes, etc. The reformers liked heated buildings just as much as everyone else, so (the argument would have gone) they needed to grow up, put their big boy pants on, etc., and accept the world as it was. After about a hundred years, this situation changed, and eventually Londoners imagined a less barbaric way to clean their chimneys. The reformers won. After that, there would have been zero people arguing that child chimney sweeps were a regrettable but necessary evil.

There would have been a lot of reason for despair during the hundred or so years it took for this change to take place. But as James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” I guess all I’m saying is that when I am tempted by despair, I shame myself by thinking about people like Baldwin and Chekhov.

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