Carl Watson grew up in Highland, Indiana, a suburb of Chicago: he lived there for many years, mostly during his childhood and adolescence. His father was a lab chemist in a refinery situated along Lake Michigan. Carl loves Chicago and sets some of his works there, including Idylls of Complicity, his latest novel and the second of a trilogy: the first being Backwards the Drowned Go Dreaming and the third on which he is currently working. I recently reviewed Idylls for the special edition of the East Village Eye magazine, out this month, and wanted to sit down with Carl to chat a bit about it. We met at Odessa – the old-school Ukrainian diner on Avenue A – and talked about his work, life and art, over beer and French fries.
Watson lives in the East Village, but he is no longer in love with New York City, and does not especially enjoy reading books which take place here – there are just too many of them. The constant jackhammering of construction is a nuisance and the people moving into the neighborhood are not especially friendly, intellectual or interesting. What he wants is peace and quiet and to spend more time in his country home upstate: a barn he’s been renovating himself, built over a century ago.
I notice a small black snake tattooed on Watson’s wrist, and remember what his characters in Idylls believe about tattooing: the inked images on a person’s skin become a part of their subconscious self. Watson loves tattoos and believes they carry with them a special power, ultimately changing the person who has been tattooed. You are a different person after you’ve gotten one, Watson says, and what’s been most important to him about tattooing is that it serves as a memory of a certain time and place and also of a certain person, especially if you’ve had a close relationship with the tattooist.
I ask Watson if he is optimistic for the future, and he tells me he is not overwhelmingly hopeful; there’s too much out there to hurt you, too much pain and loss. Love is painful too, as you give so much of yourself over to it, and also Watson’s idea of time is not linear; the past never disappears at all and is never really behind us: the events of history are buried, like many layers of sediment beneath the earth. As all time is connected, so are Watson’s characters; nearly all are composites of people he’s known throughout his life: friends, family members and lovers.
Idylls is a book largely consumed with women, and particularly goddesses; most notably the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali Ma and the great opera diva, Maria Callas. There is a sound association with the names Kali and Callas. The idea to use Callas as an adopted goddess in Idylls came to Watson when he was walking home one evening in the East Village and saw the album of the opera Carmen on the street: Callas’s luminous face gazing up at him. The novel is also a commentary about female divinity; Sophie, the novel’s female protagonist, is named for Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. Callas, like Kali, has an otherworldly look, and played goddess-type roles throughout her singing career, most notably in Turandot.
The title Idylls of Complicity bewitched me; I quite liked it, but was also perplexed by its meaning. It refers to a removal, a respite, a reverie – a place which makes it easy to be complicit; these very complicated characters are complicit in so many of the larger injustices that they so love to complain about – mostly because they’re all self-absorbed, narcissistic and, therefore, not really paying attention to anything but themselves.
Some of the most memorable and moving passages in Idylls are the italicized passages prefacing each chapter set in India, mostly detailing Hindu creation myths. Watson is not a religious person, but he is interested in the philosophical underpinnings of different religions, and he considers himself a student of religion. The book Kali’s Child by Jeffrey J. Kripal was a great source of inspiration for Idylls, and many of the sections of Hindu mysticism within the novel were directly inspired by this text.
Watson has traveled extensively in India; he has visited the country twice, both times by himself, each trip lasting three months, once in the ‘70s and once in the ‘80s. He traveled to India for the first time on a whim: he was working as an orange picker in Greece and discovered a cheap flight from Athens to Bombay. He became violently ill while he was there, and was trapped in his room for days from drinking bacteria-contaminated water. We discuss sexuality and its huge importance and presence in Indian culture, especially as it relates to the gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Sexuality is sacred and glorious, and not nearly as taboo as in the United States; arranged marriages and (adolescent) prostitution are, unfortunately, also an accepted part of Indian culture, which is one of the contradictions that are so pervasive. Despite all of its problems, Watson loves the food, the cosmology, the people, and the mythology of India.
There are visually and emotionally disturbing images described in the novel with great detail, such as a dead infant floating at the edge of a marshy pond; Watson observed something such as this description, and was saddened and disturbed by it, because he didn’t realize what it was for quite some time. That’s the thing about India: it’s filled with people and things which are staggeringly beautiful, but there are also great horrors of illness and extreme poverty unknown in the western world. It’s a country full of contradictions and complications.
Some find Watson’s writing style to be too visceral, but the things he writes about are just another part of life in need of exploration and his wish is to imbue those observations with a sort of spirituality, and to make us less afraid of them. When he’s looking to enjoy someone else’s fiction he turns to some of his favorites: Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Lover by Marguerite Duras. I asked Watson about obsession – as it is one of the recurring themes and ideas of his novel – and also one that haunts me: is it possible that we are all being pulled by invisible strings every moment toward one person, one place or one thing that is really not of our choosing, and that our desires are actually out of our control? Yes, we are slaves to our desire, and Watson identifies with the pervasiveness of obsession in his characters’ lives, and in his personal life as well; the obsessions of others can be a source of entertainment and also education, but he, very wisely, tries to disguise his own. I would say that’s a good piece of advice for everyone.
Author’s note: Idylls of Complicity was published by Spuyten Duyvil and is available in bookstores and online. Also, please come and see Watson in the East Village Eye art show: he will be reading as part of the “Channeling the Dead” event at Howl Happening (at 6 East 1st Street) on the 6th of October at 6 p.m.