SWARTZ: Much of the novel is devoted to what David Felsenstein discovers in the library and how he interprets it, so of course I spent a lot of time in the library poring over obscure books. You could say I was reading over Davids shoulder. And since Instant Karma is a diary novel, it was hard to resist raiding my own diaries for raw material. Like him, I had just left graduate school and was desperate to find ways in which my education could illuminate everyday life.
But you never thought about blowing up the library.
SWARTZ: Certainly not. I dont have a violent bone in my body. My theory is that bookish people have less trouble talking about violence and devastation because theyve read so much about it; they have the vocabulary. Furthermore, gentle people are evidently more apt to write about mayhem. I just saw Norman Mailer give a reading, and he was reminiscing about Henry Miller, whose books are filled with horrors and brutal acts even though he was by all accounts a tender and kindhearted soul.
Are all the books you cite for real?
SWARTZ: Yes, even all the texts describing the benefits of magnetotherapy and Nicolas Notovichs Life of Saint Issa, a chronicle of Jesus teenage years in Kathmandu. The only false documents are the library newsletter and the film I describe titled The Lords Prayer.
You wrote this novel in the mid-1990s. Were you looking at how artists and authors were addressing terrorism.
SWARTZ: Don DeLillos novel Mao II came out in 1991. Hes our greatest literary explainer of terrorism, and in fact I purposely kept his books out of Instant Karma, because for me his fingerprints were already all over it. Gregory Green exhibited his "Suitcase Bomb" sculptures in the at Feigen art gallery in Chicago in 1995, although, interestingly, the work that got him arrested was his display of fake LSD. And then of course there was the Unabomber.
Do you think theres a difference between how it would have been received then, if it had been published, and how it will be received now, in the wake of September 11?
SWARTZ: Domestic terrorism was less scary and more romantic with the Unabomber as mascot. He committed atrocious crimes, but the idea of him writing a manifesto to justify his actions struck a chord with me as a writer, even though his ideas were ridiculous. Today, the mention of terrorism justifiably provokes fear and panic that far outstrips the Unabombers wildest dreams. Id like to say theres a difference between one kind of terrorism and the other, but then you get into impossible questions of where to draw the line. Hurting people to make a point is wrong.
Do you expect readers to have sympathy for David Felstenstein?
SWARTZ: I know I do. Sure, hes creepy, like a lot of people you see in the library. And dangerous. But hes got a sense of humor and an inkling of his own absurdity, which makes his sincere devotion to artistic and spiritual matters hopefully a little more tolerable. His extreme self-consciousness allows you to witness notions as they arise and then as they get squashed. David knows theres no "Buddhist overthrow" on the horizon. He knows its crazy to walk around with a magnet on your head and to keep books in the freezer. I hope you get the feeling that he knows his final act is crazy, too.
Does he go through with it?
SWARTZ: The ending is ambiguous. If you read what he writes in his diary, he seems to be going through with it, but the very existence of the diary, of Instant Karma, means that it never went up in flames after all. But then again its a work of fiction, so anythings possible.
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