Lee Foust's Reviews > Inbetween

Inbetween by Lee Foust
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(Review from the author)
Read 3 times. Last read October 8, 2019.

In far-off 1986 I finished university and started working both day and night shifts in a second hand bookshop to save up enough money to get to Europe. I’d been a creative writing major at San Francisco State, studying with Stan and Ann Rice, Gina Berriault, Dan Langton, and Nanos Valeoritis. All through college I’d been honing my prose skills by writing short stories about my post-punk peers in the underground music and art scene. Eventually I collected the most indicative of these tales into my own redux of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, which I called Poison and Antidote. (It was published in 2016 and is here on Goodreads.)

By 1986, however, I felt ready to write a full-length novel. I was nursing the idea of blending my own experiences of love and my S.F. underground milieu with the ancient Greek myth of Persephone’s sojourn in the underworld, exchanging hell for a seedy apartment in Emeryville, the mother/daughter relationship for a troubled couple, Hades for an opportunistic guitarist, and those fateful pomegranate seeds for crystal meth. But I was working at the bookstore too much to find the time to get started writing.

It will all come together as soon as I get to Europe, I told myself.

When I’d amassed a whopping $3,000, I held a garage sale, packed up the books and vinyl lps I couldn’t part with, bought a People’s Express ticket to Brussels, and—after a glorious week in New York City—I set off to begin my new life as an immigrant writer. I had no real plans of ever returning to the U.S.A., but I also had no plan on how to stay in Europe once I got there. I just went.

My money lasted about seven months, from March to September. After a week in Brussels I spent a month in Paris with a friend who was doing a study abroad year at the Sorbonne, went on to Florence to see another university acquaintance, and—finding the city felt more like home than home ever did—I settled in Rome for the summer.

The story of leaving Rome and traveling northward (partially behind the old Iron Curtain to Prague and East Berlin), my money running out in medias res, a brief stint on the streets in Amsterdam, my parents bailing me out, and returning to San Francisco—to both my old job and life—I will leave for another day. (Fragments of these experience can be found in the tales and poems of my first book, Sojourner, also here on Goodreads.)

What I want to put in this space, though, is a description of how Inbetween came to be the kind of novel it is, in case you’re interested to hear a little something about this author’s process. Landing in Brussels, and finding myself at loose ends wandering from café to café through the rainy (and snowy) early spring streets of Europe, I finally began penning the updated Persephone narrative I’d been planning to write for so long. But I also found myself enchanted by my new surroundings and sketching scenes, recording impressions, composing poems and even songs (I didn’t know yet that my days of fronting a band were over) about my European adventures.

When I eventually settled in Rome, found an apartment, bought the lightest portable typewriter I could find, and began typing up what I’d written, I started to wonder if my single-night-in-a-nightclub Persephone narrative couldn’t be expanded into something more sustained and multi-layered. I felt like I knew more about love—oh, the hubris!—than I could get into the story of a single couple on a single bad night in their relationship in a West Oakland squat.

Thus Inbetween was born.

Love, to the 25-year-old me, had been a kind of fragmentary, on-again/off-again thing—but also an enormous literary and emotional preoccupation, as had been the study of art and politics—and I felt the desire to aesthetically form all of my thoughts and experiences of these three topics into a novel, my favorite art form.

Thus I imagined the couple I had created continuing their tenuous relationship in the cities through which I was passing while I wrote the first part of their story: Paris, Florence, and Rome. Like Persephone and Demeter, they would be together in the spring and summer and apart in the fall and winter. Feverishly writing and typing up scenes of my couple both coupling and rejecting each other, both together and alone reflecting on their love, I soon realized that I needed a formal principle to arrange my many fragments in time and that chronological order was not going to work—for I had written the narrative of the fateful night of Persephone’s descent into hades from both characters’ points of view, as two simultaneous narratives.

If you’re one of those people who enjoys solving crossword puzzles and thrills at working out the formal models of OuLiPo novels—or just want to experience Inbetween ex nihilo—stop reading here as I’m now going to explain the formal principles at work in the novel and how I came to adopt them. Therefore, formal (not substantive) spoiler alert:

When my friend studying in Paris finished his academic year, he came to visit me in Rome. We traveled together to Naples. That city’s vitality and beauty inspired me more than I can say. On the ferry ride across the bay to the island of Capri, I began reading a paperback I’d found for cheap in Rome: Dante Alighieri’s little pre-Commedia prosimetrum, Vita Nova, or The New Life.

Despite its medieval formalism, I still believe this little collection of prose, verse, and commentary to be the greatest book about love I have ever read. I might think this because of—rather than in spite of—how literary the text is. It’s not so much about love as about how love and writing converge, about writing about love, about what can be said of love in the language of literature—which is not, despite the coining of the phrase, the language of love but a language outside of, surrounding, or perhaps only inspired by the feeling of love.

One of the amazing things about The New Life, interestingly pointed out mostly by Anglo-American critics, are the formal properties born of the text’s thematic properties. The "little book," as Dante calls it, presents Love (personified) and conflates him with the Christian Holy Trinity, defining Love as “The center of a perfect circle” and associating him with the number three. Now, while we might imagine three geometrically to represent a triangle, given Love’s “Perfect Circle,” we rather find the Vita Nova to be a circular text (representing Love’s God-like omnipresence) shot through with a straight line (time as experienced by humans on Earth). The text’s many threes therefore represent the outer edges and the center of Love’s presence in our lives as we pass through the emotion's vicissitudes. Without writing too much of a literary essay, let me just say that threes and multiples of three abound in the Vita Nova and the text’s geometry got me thinking about the human experience of love (not personified) which does verge on holiness and mystery, and which also seems to disregard time, even as we experience it chronologically—we meet a beloved, love them, and then love ends (either on its own or through death).

These musings gave me the formal principle I needed. I began, in imitation of the poet/narrator of The New Life, to write my own narrator’s story, each of his thirty chapters both recount his experience of writing the fragments that make up the main narrative of Inbetween, the couple's story, while also echoing the thirty chapters of the Vita Nova, as well as alluding to a few other love and underworld-centered narratives: the myth of Orpheus, Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, and Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy. Thus, the novel begins with the narrator describing the text’s form: “Like a pebble dropped into a pool of still water.” Inbetween begins and ends in several places, but it’s origin—the scene of the couple’s first meeting—lies at the center of the book and the scenes that spiral outward from either side of that scene are either thematically or chronologically linked. The first scene in Rome, for example, is another version of the novel’s final scene. Each chronologically forward-moving scene of Persey’s night out in Oakland of the novel’s first section mirror her lover’s experience of the same night going backward in time in the third. The scenes of the male character alone in Paris of the first section correspond to scenes of the female alone studying art in Florence in the third, etc.

So, while I believe I’ve arranged the fragments in the most aesthetically pleasing order, the novel—a bit like Cortázar’s Hopscotch—could also be read back to front, or by beginning in the middle and going forward and backward by turns, or by following the chapters by the cities for which they are named, or by following the chronology I’ve provided, if one prefers. I think each strategy would at the same time create a new story while collectively remaining always the same story. Love, to me, is like that.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
August 23, 2019 – Shelved
August 23, 2019 –
page 86
30.82% "Giving my forthcoming novel a final read-through. What a luxury, when reading something you don't like, to be able to change it to something you do like."
October 8, 2019 – Started Reading
October 8, 2019 – Started Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
October 8, 2019 – Shelved (Other Paperback Edition)
October 8, 2019 – Finished Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
October 8, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Ben (new) - added it

Ben Whiting Chevy.

message 2: by Fergus (new) - added it

Fergus Wow. Incredible. I'm adding this now... THANKS!

message 3: by Lee (last edited Aug 29, 2019 02:28PM) (new) - added it

Lee Foust Thank, Fergus! As a protest against corporate bookselling/Amazon this novel will only be available through the press (in Florence, Italy), myself, or by ordering it from your local bookstore (they can get it through Ingram wholesalers). If you--or anyone--wants a copy paypal leefoust@gmail.com $15.00, include your mailing address, and I will send it out as soon as the book is printed in October. Cheers!

message 4: by Fergus (new) - added it

Fergus Definitely in on this. Thanks! And I look forward to your great reviews!

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