“Can we break out of this prison of self?” The CAT interview with Phil Klay

Phil Klay is a novelist and a Marine Corps veteran. His short story collection Redeployment won numerous important prizes: the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, the National Book Critics’ Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre, and one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times. His novel Missionaries was named to the Wall Street Journal’s best 10 books of 2020 list. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the Brookings Institution’s Brookings Essay series. He currently teaches fiction at Fairfield University. His latest work, the essay collection Uncertain Ground was released in May of 2022 with Penguin Press.

Catholic Arts Today’s contributing editor, Sarah Cortez, interviewed Klay about his vision as an artist and as a Catholic artist in Dallas during the 2022 Catholic Imagination Conference.

Sarah Cortez: In the story “Prayer in the Furnace” a line written by an older priest to a younger priest, an Army chaplain, caught my attention. It says: “Sin is a lonely thing.” I wondered if this is the appropriate lens through which to read all the stories in Redeployment, through the lens of the spiritual detachments that your characters endure: meaningful sex, memories of home, security of training, security of location, faith in God, faith in fellow humans. Are you consciously stripping away a man’s spiritual struts?

Phil Klay: It’s not that all these things must fail. Some props are more false than others. Sex with a prostitute is not going to do it in terms of connection or meaning. But the isolation, the alienation people experience was important to me. A central drama of the book is that the characters are trying to make contact. Are we isolated atomized creatures only experiencing things that are only ours? Is there a way to break out of this prison of self?  Are there points of contact?

It is important that the old priest (though he has never been to war) is not impressed with the horrors of war; not because war is not horrific but because horrible things are what humans often do: This is sin and its consequences. It is not fundamentally different than what he’s dealt with back at home, maybe more extreme, but the question remains the same: Can we escape from the prison of the self? Can contact can be made?

So in the longer story “Psychological Operations,” there are intertwined narratives of a character telling stories to a woman that he’s attracted to and a story of his relationship with his father along with multiple stories about insurgents. I did that not because I was interested in playing a metaphysical game of nesting Russian-doll narratives, but because of the way that language is being used in each of those iterations of the story while the character moves closer and closer to a space of genuine vulnerability.

Sarah Cortez:  One thing I enjoyed in your stories was the male humor: the visceral roughness and crudity. The fact that the characters are often facing death or dealing with its aftermath seems to ratchet up the humor?

Phil Klay: Rough humor is one way of bonding, a way of bluntly acknowledging a difference, then agreeing to laugh about it.  On the other hand, humor can also be used as a way to make distinctions and create barriers. Sexist humor often functions like that in male groups: You tell the joke that is inherently demeaning in front of the one woman who is present. That woman is then put in a bind: Either she laughs loudly and accepts the underlying premise of the joke, which is demeaning to women. Or she pushes back against it, in which case, she’s not a team player.

You can also see humor as positive. The amount of racial humor that went around among a very diverse Marine population was, and is, enormous. But humor was also a way of bluntly acknowledging differences and then making a conscious decision, like “we’re going to laugh about this rather than make an issue of it.”  I don’t want to overly idealize it, because it’s not like there wasn’t a double-edged sword to it, but humor could be a method for dealing with this distance and difference that results in bonding. If somebody says something that sort of bothers you or offends you, turning it into a joke is one way of acknowledging it without insisting on it being your way. The humor then is another way of saying, “Let’s just get past these things, together.”

Sarah Cortez: One of the moments that hit me the hardest in Redeployment was in “Bodies” when the young soldier at home on leave lies down on top of the covers of his ex-girlfriend’s bed with her. He knows she’s a pacifist and no longer loves him. When he held her hands a few moments earlier, her only response was to say, “I didn’t shave my legs today.” The way that she reacts is so far from what he needs.

Phil Klay:  But it’s also related to what he needs. It’s that hairline moment. It’s Frank O’Hara’s line: “I want to be at least as alive as the vulgar.” It’s not supposed to be where you stop. But it is being alive.

There’s something about sex for a lot of these characters who want connection. Sex often feels to people like it is the epitome of intimacy. That’s why sex can also be the most alienating thing, as it is in some of the stories, because the thing that is supposed to be most intimate is actually the moment when you feel most alone.

At a visceral level, the opaqueness of the other body in front of you makes the failure that much greater. And yet the characters come back to sex because it does have that aura that it will be a portal to connection. When it’s working, sex is about vulnerability, it’s about connection and intimacy. It’s about love. Sex can be about family and community, and so it can be about building a family, making sexual intimacy not just a moment of connection, but about your future, and your past as well. Sex is this thing, and, of course, sex is often this kind of substitute for experience, right? It’s often a substitute for God. But there’s a reason for that, right? Sex is sort of like a key to the self, a key to understanding. What matters most about sex is that it’s not like other human acts.

Sarah Cortez: You’ve said you consider yourself a Catholic writer. Tell us more about this.

Phil Klay:  Readers are free to take what they can from my work; if somebody who’s not interested in the religious themes isn’t necessarily missing everything about the book, they’re just focusing on something different. There are reviews of my novel Missionaries that were all about it being Catholic, and then there were reviews that were all about American military policy.  You’d almost think there were two different books, and to me that is fine. In some ways, I like that, I like the readers coming with different things that they’re interested in and taking different things away.

In fiction, it’s not like there’s a correct answer that everybody is supposed to come to. That’s not the point. Fiction is something that you come with your own world view and understanding, then you enter into this other world that has been created for you, and then you make something out of it. You have a creative response to it, so not everybody’s supposed to have the same response. Hopefully, a writer is able to hit different people at different levels.

But I do want people to be aware that the Catholicism is important to me, and not just because a priest shows up in the book, which is the most obvious thing. When you read a novel like Andre Dubus’ The Lieutenant, (which is being re-issued and is a wonderful novel), you can read it without any idea that he’s a Catholic author, or that religion is extremely important to him because there’s not a whisper of it in the book. It’s a military novel full of ritual and purpose and an institution that provides those things within a collective setting—and it’s about a character who is trying to find himself and his identity and a source of meaning in life through that purely secular institution. If you understand more of Dubus’ worldview and what matters to him, you understand that he’s writing about a world that his interest in is deeply related to his faith. He’s also showing skepticism about the depth and the extent to which a purely secular world can satisfy someone in those regards. It’s also deeply related to his faith, and so it adds a different layer and a different way of reading the book, and a different way of understanding what matters to the author. So, yes, of course, I want be known as that kind of author; I want to write in that way.

Sarah Cortez: You’ve said that stories that engage with the world and engage with the faith can be tools for the faithful to use. Could you tell us how you might see this happening?

Phil Klay: I wouldn’t still be a Catholic except for Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back.” In this story you find characters really grappling with the difficulties that people encounter. What drew me back to the faith was not a set of intellectual propositions, but rather more of a sense that a world view that is informed by Catholic sensibility is richer and truer to the beauty of reality and to real evil. The Catholic sensibility is attuned to the characters’ struggles.  You can have a character that is no longer Catholic that is struggling with the same crises.

Stories are deeply important to our faith. What we have are traditions, rituals, communal practices…and stories, stories. The Bible is a cacophony of stories that must be appreciated through literature. The stories about the saints. We are story-telling animals. For each age we must find stories that grapple with the world as we find it.

Sarah Cortez: Why do you teach creative writing?

Phil Klay: I like it. What’s not to like when you take your favorite thing in the world, and you share with students who are trying to express things that are important to them now? Storytelling is the best way for us to express that which is most vital to us. You can become utterly vulnerable on the page in fiction in a way that you can’t in any other form—and that is a glorious thing. It’s a thing that keeps us human.

Sarah Cortez is president and founder of Catholic Literary Arts, A Houston writer and editor with fourteen award-winning books to her credit, she is a fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, a Scanlan fellow at the University of St. Thomas, and a former fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

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