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In Print: Mark Swartz's novel thesis

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Mark Swartz protests a bit too much about the distance he keeps from the protagonist of his first novel, Instant Karma. Though Swartz seems to favor nonautobiographical fiction, young David Felsenstein, underemployed anarchist, fantasizes incessantly about blowing up the Harold Washington Library Center--where Swartz will read from his novel next week. Consider yourself warned.

"I still have to sort out my feelings toward, one, David, and, two, the 27-year-old who wrote this book," says Swartz, whose work lay "in a drawer" for seven years before City Lights Books in San Francisco picked it up. Text-obsessed Jewish diarist David's self-deprecating psychology is plausible. His antics (near the end of his gig as a Salvation Army Santa he's bawled out for working with a paper bag over his head) and cleverness (his diary's footnoted like a cross between a textbook and Infinite Jest) are hooky. But as his packed and idle brain milks creepy non sequiturs from the tomes he quotes, you'll start wishing you didn't like him so much.

"I wasn't as pathological [as David]," says Swartz. "But I certainly took myself more seriously back then. Some of the ideas in Instant Karma were actually borrowed from my own master's thesis ["Jasper Johns's Zen Consciousness," 1993], which suggests that I believed in them, but as time goes on, the novel gets funnier. The thesis too."

The '93-model Swartz--an art history student at the University of Chicago--claimed that early Zen-influenced American art like Johns's painting of a colorless U.S. flag and John Cage's noiseless "4'33" ("secretly a silenced 'Star-Spangled Banner,' I argued") fed politicized 60s yowls like Hendrix's "Banner." Swartz argues that it's ironic that the more ostentatious protests became icons of the counterculture, because they were then easily recast by the establishment to--in David's words--"evoke a certain kind of nostalgic, fought-for patriotism."

In the novel David takes the logic of Swartz's thesis a step further, conflating fire and art--"Fire, like art," he says at one point, "is always diminished by an agenda." Swartz thinks that's true of most art, but doesn't share David's ideas about fire. "He has some religious baggage he's not dealing with too well," he says of his hero. "He's not too worried about God, but he's caught up in some kind of Talmudic trap." A dogged bibliophile who believes in the inevitable obsolescence of all art, David's shocked by the library's modern document-preservation techniques, such as regluing bindings and setting books "on conveyer belts to pass through fumigation chambers." He wants to burn the books in order to save them from a living death.

Floated through his habitual joblessness by packages of bills and coins from his father in Wilmette, David obviously suffers from a surfeit of free time. Swartz, a Chicago native, lived here (and freelanced art reviews for the Reader) while writing Instant Karma; he wrote novels two and three (still in the drawer) abroad and during a strike at his current job--he writes ad copy for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But, he complains, "When I've been out of work and when I was on strike, nothing ever got done. I spent a year--all of 1998--in Ireland and was alarmingly unproductive. Whereas when I have a job, my time is structured, and I get a little bit done every day and it all adds up."

A library representative working on his upcoming reading recently told Swartz that David embodied a certain breed of library regular. "I guess I had to become that type to write this book, sort of go undercover," he says. "That was me pulling book after book off the shelf and flipping through them obsessively, laughing under my breath and scribbling in a notebook....Burying yourself in one book is nice, but burying yourself in a dozen can be amazing. The texts just start talking to each other."

City Lights's press release for the novel claims--provocatively--that it "defines terrorism as an artistic movement." "That phrase is mine--I think," says Swartz. "But I wrote it as a marketing hook, not as something the author should or would say....Novels proceed from certain assumptions--faulty, some or all of the time--and adhere to their own logic. Anyone who's ever tried to write a newspaper article--let alone a novel--will tell you that you can't do these things without a degree of manipulation. This novel operates on the assumption that terrorism equals art. It's a dangerous equation, but as Jonathan Tel wrote in a recent collection of stories [Arafat's Elephant], 'A story about a bomb is not a bomb.'"

Swartz will read from Instant Karma at 5:30 on Wednesday, October 9, in the seventh floor Chicago Authors Room of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State (312-747-4700). He'll also appear at 7 on Saturday, October 12, at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North (773-342-0910). Both events are free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anna Hammond.

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