We talk to Daniel Uncapher (whose story “Infestation Miracles” appeared in issue forty-one of Neon) about miracles, science, and beetle burgers.
What constitutes a miracle in your opinion? And what inspired the connection between infestations and miracles?
The interesting thing about miracles is how much they mean for both secular and religious worldviews. I think there are two types of miracles: miracles of circumstance and miracles of being. The miracles of Exodus, for example, are circumstantial – miracles of timing, coincidence, or acts of God. This is the performative sense of the word “miracle”. But we also talk about life itself as a miracle, the state of existence rather than non-existence as the miracle to beget all miracles. That’s a miracle of being – a fundamentally inexplicable persistence.
The seasonal infestations of Mississippi are miracles of both circumstance and being, a mix between the plagues of Egypt and the garden of Eden; whether it’s a miracle of plague or of paradise, a punishment or a blessing, comes down to simple state of mind. It also raises an existential question: if I can’t appreciate the miracle in an intrusion of cockroaches or a clutter of spiders, how could I appreciate anything close to the full magnitude of God? Or, on a more practical level, if I can’t live with the bugs in my walls, how can I live with the bugs in my eyelashes and hair?
That’s the idea behind it, at least. In my narrator’s case, all the theology and science is nothing more than an attempt to rationalize away his loneliness.
What are your general feelings on bugs and insects? It’s been said that farming insects might be a more sustainable replacement for meat. Would you ever eat a beetle burger?
I used to hate bugs as much as I hated germs, but the total futility of the latter phobia helped me come to terms with the relative futility of the former. I think my first step was learning how to live with and respect spiders; if you have them then you need them, and they always earn their keep. But once you extend that grace to spiders everything else comes into question. Centipedes are just less intrusive and more capable versions of spiders. Bees and butterflies are easy to adore, but wasps and moths are just as important. Even cockroaches are more disgusted by us than we are by them.
At the same time I’m tempted to hold the opposite position. If we won’t tolerate cockroaches, why do we let ladybugs play on our hands? The ladybugs in particular are problematic. The ones that come inside my home and live on my walls aren’t native Mississippians, but an invasive Asian species called harlequins. There’s one crawling across my screen right now. They have no right whatsoever to life on this continent, and I should simply exterminate them. But then, what rights do I have to this continent? It becomes existential again, and the absurdity of having an existential crisis over the existence of ladybugs becomes a crisis of its own.
As for beetle burgers, farming insects for protein is the most rational thing in the world. Even in the west we already eat them – lac bugs, maggots in our mushrooms, roaches in our chocolate. We just don’t face that fact because of how removed we are from the food-making process. Even knowing that, I think I’d rather go back to vegetarianism and soy burgers than make the change to beetle burgers.
A lot of your fiction revolves around different ways of imagining things, or makes use of a list-like structure. Is this a conscious thing? What appeals to you about this format?
I usually don’t mean to do it until it’s already happening, and then I always pursue it. I think it’s more accessible for the reader and, with a certain type of material, more liberal for the writer. It definitely lends itself to extended metaphors, to repetition, and to prose-poetry, all of which I find useful and enjoyable.
Lists and fragments both come directly from my background in philosophy. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a landmark work of analytic philosophy famous for the excessively logical manner of its composition, forms its arguments in an ordered list consisting of digressionary smaller lists. Reading it for the first time was like reading Rimbaud, a starkly poetic experience that immediately transformed my understanding of the written word, for better or worse; I wrote every school paper like that for weeks until my professors snapped me out of it.
Yet the greater influence, and the one which resonates with “Infestation Miracles” and “Collisions,” is Wittgenstein’s last work, the Philosophical Investigations. His lists give way to a somewhat unstructured, totally fragmentary collection of philosophical insights. It’s like a book of zen koans, brief puzzles or anecdotes that all strike at the same basic truth, the same breakthrough of the monk or the philosopher. The singular truth is re-stated and re-characterized over and over, often through simple metaphor, and instead of a linear argument a raft is constructed, strengthened by its own intertwining connections until an understanding of the whole thing, somehow, comes through to the reader. In philosophical terms, for anything to be true, there must be “Truth”, and everything that conveyed the truth would then share something of the same until everything is connected, everything is metaphor. I think there’s something to be said for this.
The more I work with fragmentary narrative the more respect I have for linear narrative, but for certain material, especially experiential or existential, I think both fragmentation and ordered lists, when applied deliberately, can achieve almost mathematical levels of expression, cutting out the unnecessary and leaving nothing but a brief cross-hatching of the human condition.
What are you reading at the moment? Do you have a favourite book?
I’m working through the bibliography of Hubert Creekmore, a somewhat forgotten writer from Water Valley, Mississippi and close cousin of Eudora Welty who left the south for New York City, where he worked for my personal favourite publisher, New Directions. I recently finished The Chain In The Heart, a multi-generational novel about the struggles faced by an African-American family in the century after the Civil War. I’m about to start The Erotic Elegies Of Albius Tibullus. I hope to work on his material academically one day.
When I’m not reading Creekmore I’m reading and re-reading Jorge Luis Borges. Most recently Dreamtigers, the collection that Borges regarded most dear to his heart. And finally, my friend in Manchester just sent me a box full of Penguin Little Black Classics, little eighty-pence chapbooks of famous material from the public domain. They’re really cool, and we have nothing like that in America. Ivan Turgenev’s Kasyan From The Beautiful Lands is sitting before me now.
Daniel Uncapher lives and writes in Water Valley, Mississippi, where he operates a private printing press out of his antebellum home. His work has appeared in both Neon and The Baltimore Review.