A. Zachary is a writer and artist living in Toronto. The End, by Anna, published by the Montreal-based press Metatron, is their first book. This interview took place through email conversations, has been edited, and comes with a spoiler alert. You may very much want to read the book before reading.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In full disclosure, A. Zachary is an Associate Poetry Editor at The Puritan.]
Aaron Boothby: The End, By Anna, isn’t just a novel concerned with art—it includes an archive of works and the entire career of a fictional artist. Could you talk about writers and artists who influenced you and your approach to writing it?
A. Zachary: I managed to sneak a few of these into the text; the Marina Abramović story is the obvious one, but the narrator and Anna also mention the story of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” and Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human. I began writing The End shortly after reading the brilliant Polyamorous Love Song by my friend Jacob Wren, and I didn’t realize just how strongly it had influenced me until I was done. Anna’s work was consciously influenced by some of my favourite artists, including He Yunchang (warning: graphic), Jenny Holzer, On Kawara, John Baldessari, Anne Collier, Yoko Ono, and Dylan Lynch.
AB: Anna, a visual artist, decides all her art is poetry, whereas you are creating her art, in a way, by writing. How does your own visual art relate to that process? Do you approach texts from a position of art, whether performance or otherwise?
AZ: Like Anna’s, my art is mostly conceptual art (often using text), but I also do traditional photography. Nearly all of it stays in my home and is never seen by anyone. I write for public consumption, but I make art for my own satisfaction.
I think that in my art I am consciously experimental and more “intellectual” in disposition, whereas in my writing I am just honest and passionate. But in both forms, I like to let a playful self-awareness coexist with the fact that I take my work, and often myself, very seriously. I don’t necessarily think of any of this as a “position of art.”
AB: The Marina Abramović story is an important moment in the book—this reflective instance of intersection between Anna’s work, the narrator’s, and yours as an author. How’d those things come together?
… when she decides to die, she’ll probably make an artwork out of that, too; maybe one that would invite people to watch her cease to exist.
AZ: I was cynical and willfully ignorant of conceptual art in general until I ended up at Marina’s “512 Hours” piece, held in London in the summer of 2014, the same show the narrator of The End describes. My experience of meeting Marina was pretty much exactly as described, though all the dialogue is fictional. The piece included multiple meditative activities, but many people ignored those in favour of simply watching Marina exist, watching her swoop from room to room.
When I read up on her career days later, I realized how much her work relied upon the expectation that people would want to watch her just existing, living, up close; whether in a chair at a museum, on a slab, on a screen, or walking through the Serpentine Gallery. The natural evolution of that, in my mind, was: when she decides to die, she’ll probably make an artwork out of that, too; maybe one that would invite people to watch her cease to exist.
A few months later, I wondered how Anna (already an established internal alter-ego) would do it. And The End came to mind.
AB: Anna invents a piece of art that requires her to die as a consequence of completing the work. She doesn’t seem to want to die, right? It’s not what we usually mean when we speak of suicide.
AZ: Anna wouldn’t otherwise want to die, but she’s so consumed by her drive for fame that she’s happy to die for the sake of the work—only, though, because she’s absolutely sure that it will reach as wide an audience as she imagines, will achieve the desired notoriety. She is a narcissist and not a purist. Anna wouldn’t do anything at all unless people were watching.
AB: This obviously complicates and informs all of Anna’s relationships, most of all the narrator’s, who is a kind of caretaker and promoter of Anna’s work. They explicitly want the work to be “performed,” even though it is suicidal, and their devotion seems driven by a love to which she is entirely unresponsive. What drives that devotion? Anna’s art, Anna, or something else?
AZ: I think of Anna as a siren, as one who inspired intense, unhealthy, requited devotion in people who weren’t quite her equals. This happens with Oliver [Anna’s boyfriend], too, but the narrator is worse affected. So, it’s not about her work. Anna could have left any task behind, and the narrator would have tried to get it done.
After Anna’s death, though, they romanticize her to perhaps as great a degree as she romanticized herself. The narrator writes the text we’re reading a year after her death, still consumed by and utterly devoted to their memories of Anna. There may even be an element of the narrator writing and publishing the book to show off how well they knew her. It’s not selfless.
AB: The narrator isn’t given a gendered identity, or much of a descriptive identity at all except in relation to the other three characters. That’s interesting as a reader and exposes a lot of conventions typically at work in granting identities, but why was it important for you?
AZ: In general, I wanted to make the narrator as “open” a character as possible. We hear a lot of their voice and get a good idea of who they are as a person, but only three facts about the narrator are given away in the text. I imagined the narrator writing the whole thing and consciously wanting to tell Anna’s story rather than their own, maybe even editing out details about their own life before publication. Perhaps that process included references to their gender, or perhaps they have no gender to refer to.
I feel some elusive thing in or about the prose to be very off-putting, but more importantly, its ‘liberation from gender’ feels fake, as if Garréta wrote a typical cis love story and then took out the pronouns when she finished.
AB: Do you know this book by Anne Garréta, Sphinx? It’s coming up in a lot of conversations about gender and literature right now and I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on it.
AZ: Years ago, I read two excerpts of and a few articles about the translation of Garréta’s book, though none of the original. I’m pretty sure I hate it. In general, I feel some elusive thing in or about the prose to be very off-putting, but more importantly, its “liberation from gender” feels fake, as if Garréta wrote a typical cis love story and then took out the pronouns when she finished. This could be a failure of the translation; from what I’ve heard, the French text is more fluid.
AB: In French, the impulse seems to have been an experiment in the intensely gendered grammar of French more than an intent to address gender itself. Entangling it in current discourse and actual bodies is very messy and Garréta doesn’t seem equipped.
AZ: Her own thinking about the novel is unfortunately rooted in basic binarism. It would have been truly interesting experimental writing if, instead of constantly switching back/forth between masculine/feminine with each noun and adjective, she had invented a new French neuter article and grammar and written in that instead. She didn’t think big enough. I’m super suspicious whenever cis people write stuff like this anyway; it’s nearly always a disingenuous gimmick.
I’m actually dealing with the translation end of this myself, however: The End is being translated into French and the translator seems to be having difficulty with the narrator.
AB: I wrote about The End and called it “unsentimental literature,” because the tone and approach really arrested me. The emotional registers are not what is expected from especially Canadian fiction and have a way of making the ugliness of distressing scenes more acute. I’d think you have reasons for that.
AZ: I think my fiction is only successful when I treat it as non-fiction; when I imagine an altered version of myself sitting and writing the story of their life as honestly as possible. The End’s narrator is often unreliable, but not as far as they know. In doing that, I want to try to never shy from saying what things actually are and what is really happening. If subtlety escapes me, so be it.
When I go out of my way to try to make something relatable, the result feels fake and sappy, but when I don’t, it feels flat and clinical. Maybe this isn’t such a unique struggle.
AB: What else are you working on? What comes next?
AZ: I’m currently working on my next two books. One will be a collection of poems, mostly about sex, love, and gender stuff. The other will be a collection of nine prose projects, which have few commonalities but flow somewhat nicely into one another.
A. Zachary (1993–present) is an artist, editor, and writer in Toronto.