Kevin Guilfoile:
casting shadows

An interview by Ron Bierman

A favorable review in The New York Times and front-page coverage in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine are evidence that Kevin Guilfoile's first published novel, Cast of Shadows, is a solid critical hit. I'll set the stage for our Rambles session by first summarizing the results of a little Internet research -- with special thanks to The Morning News and bookreporter.

Before Cast of Shadows, Guilfoile was known primarily as a humorist. His articles and essays have appeared in many magazines and e-zines including The New Republic, McSweeney's and Salon. My First Presidency: A Scrapbook by George W. Bush, purporting to be a journal Bush kept while campaigning, is a satirical work he co-authored with John Warner.

With those credits in mind, it's not surprising that the O.J. Simpson trial of several years ago triggered thoughts of humorous magazine pieces related to DNA evidence. But as the author thought more about the possibilities, he asked himself: what if the DNA of an unknown killer was cloned in hopes that the genetic twin's appearance would match the killer's? That idea led him away from a short, humorous piece to the 20-page outline of a serious novel, a novel that would allow him to explore philosophical issues that intrigued him.

I was particularly taken with the idea of an author who wanted to use his plot and characters to explore some of the philosophical issues raised by modern technology. My discussion with Kevin concentrated on that aspect of his novel. An e-mail exchange allowed him to use his considerable writing skills to answer questions a bit off the beaten path.

Cast of Shadows begins with the quote my first question references. It is from Mary Shelley's preface to Frankenstein: "The Opinions which naturally spring from the character and the situation of the hero are by no means to be conceived as existing always in mine own conviction; nor is any inference justly to be drawn from the following pages as prejudicing any philosophical doctrine of whatever kind."

RB: It seems to me the book takes an amoral stance on the big philosophical issues. Truth doesn't necessarily triumph, evil isn't necessarily punished. Was that something you wanted it to say? Even if, remembering the Shelley quote, it's the book's view, not yours.

KG: As you suggest, when I talk about the themes of Cast of Shadows I usually find myself saying, "the book would claim" or the "the book takes the position." I suppose I do that because I don't want anyone to interpret this story as representing an agenda of any sort. The philosophical questions explored in the book are ones I am interested in, but the fact that I am interested in them likely means that I have ambivalence about them to one degree or another. The fates of the characters, however, are their own. I didn't manipulate the story in order to arrive at some moral.

You're right when you say that evil isn't necessarily punished, although that alone is a rather uncontroversial insight, I think. More interesting is "truth," which doesn't really get a chance in this story. None of the characters in this book knows the whole truth, and they are each missing a different piece of the puzzle. They act on assumptions -- frequently bad assumptions, we learn -- and these actions have tragic consequences. If any character actually understood the truth, the story would have certainly ended very differently. Of course, we almost never know the whole truth in life, which is why I'm put off by books in which the entire truth is revealed in the last chapter and every decision made by the protagonist is redeemed. I never wanted the book to tell you how to feel, and so by the end of Cast of Shadows certain facts remain unknown even to the reader and how you ultimately judge the characters depends on what you believe the truth to be.

RB: I sensed ambivalence rather than firm views on the issues you raised. Little is black and white to me, either. That's one of the reasons I liked the book.

Science fiction and a few scientists have been raising the question of personal continuity when memory and personality are (at this point) magically transferred to digital computers. Clones and game characters are the "shadows" of your title. Was the problem of identity one of the main philosophical issues you wanted to write about?

KG: To me, identity is the most interesting philosophical puzzle, perhaps because it's the most basic question that's common to everyone. (To be more fundamental you'd have to get deeper into metaphysics, I suppose, which might hold little interest for many secular folks.)

In the book, Justin (the teenage boy who was cloned from a murder suspect) is obsessed with his identity. He tries to find answers within himself and even identifies what he thinks is his essence. He tells Davis Moore, the doctor who created him, "If I can figure out what I was thinking just before the thought I'm having now, and how it's connected to the thought before that and the thought before that, at the end of it I'll be able to find the real me. ... We're not made up of our thoughts, you know, even though that's the only way most of us can approach the question of identity. I am the one who makes the thoughts, and that is who I'm looking for at night: the thinker, separated from his thoughts."

Eventually Justin finds such mental exercises inadequate and decides to externalize his search by tracking down the man he was cloned from. Justin claims to be seeking justice for Davis Moore's murdered daughter, but of course what he's really looking for is himself.

Another character, Sally Barwick, has also externalized the search for her identity. She plays Shadow World, a massive, multi-player online game in which every detail of our world is replicated virtually. More specifically, she is what gamers call a "true-to-life" player. She lives inside the game exactly as she lives in the real world. Her goal is to make her online life so real that she is able to see herself exactly as other people see her.

Part of the fun of this book (for me), was to take the fundamental (and always internalized) search for identity and see how it would manifest itself as a mystery story. Of course, the reader doesn't have to understand it on that level. I hope the book works as a suspenseful page-turner whether you are paying close attention to that stuff or not.

RB: Playing the game to see yourself as others do is a clever thought, but, as in The Matrix, the computer programming itself is highly unlikely in any reasonable timeframe. That will bother some SF fans when they try to suspend disbelief. I'm sure your editor doesn't care in the cause of a good story and he doesn't want the book classified as SF anyway. How did you feel about it, or is strictly beside the point?

KG: I'd put Bradbury in my top-five favorite writers and count Asimov, Le Guin, Dick and Bester among a long list of influences. I realize hardcore fans could probably argue about whether or not to classify Cast of Shadows as sci-fi. It's not beside the point, but there's not a lot I can do about it. I had a story I wanted to tell and I tried to tell it as best I could. When I was writing, I was conscious (and proud) of the debts the story owed to genre fiction, but I wasn't thinking very much about whether it met the definition of sci-fi, or mysteries, or thrillers, or literary fiction, or any of the other bookstore ghettoes to which it might end up retiring.

Shadow World is really just The Sims taken to an extreme, of course. I'm not suggesting that's where games will really end up -- I don't claim to be a futurist -- but I was more interested in the game as a metaphor. Shadow World was conceived separately from the cloning story (I had written the concept in a notebook several years ago) but once I began outlining the book I saw how well the game fit thematically. I also wanted it in there for structural reasons. The story takes place over 20 years, but I wanted the setting to always feel like some alternate version of the present. Nevertheless, I thought it was important for the reader to feel time passing. So I had the idea to introduce Shadow World about halfway through the book and as the story progresses, the game gets more sophisticated and more and more people are playing it. You can recognize time passing in the game, even as it seems to be frozen in many ways in the real world of the story.

During the pre-publicity phase there was a lot of discussion -- as there is with every book, I'm sure -- about how Cast of Shadows would be perceived, genre-wise. The design department went through a lot of iterations of the cover. Unfortunately, when a book gets labeled "sci-fi" that affects where it is placed in the store and how it gets reviewed, and there are some people, sadly, who will never read a book they think is science fiction. (And there are also people, of course, who read almost nothing but.) To their credit, Knopf felt there was a broad audience for Cast of Shadows so they definitely tried to walk a line with the marketing, acknowledging the speculative aspects of the story while presenting it as a thriller that would appeal to mainstream readers. It was tricky.

RB: (Given Kevin's thoughtful, extended answers, and my own interests in theory and philosophy, I would have been delighted to continue the exchange in the same vein, but we were already beyond the length originally intended. I made an abrupt turn towards home with an oxymoronic question related to Kevin's previous writing experience.) Why isn't humor taken more seriously? It's probably harder to write and seems to me often the best way to get a point across.

KG: Literary humor has such a great tradition in America -- Twain and Thurber and Parker and Woody Allen and many, many more. I'm not really a scholar but I think a lot of it got lost when humor became such a big industry. In the '80s when stand-ups were playing to basketball arenas and the sit-com ruled television, literary humor just got drowned out and by the nineties it seemed like there was hardly anyone publishing it anymore. The New Yorker once a week and the occasional brilliant piece by Ian Frazier in The Atlantic. Spy and Might did wonderful work, but National Lampoon wasn't what it had been. Some of PJ O'Rourke's funniest stuff was published by Car & Driver, for crying out loud.

One of the lasting legacies of the Internet bubble, I would argue, was the explosion of outlets for smart, well-written humor and satire. The Onion, McSweeney's, Modern Humorist, Suck, Opium, Dezmin, Sweet Fancy Moses, The Black Table. Dozens more. Some tremendous writers got noticed in about a two-year period there. Some of those sites are no longer publishing -- The Onion and McSweeney's are still going strong -- but now we have sites like The Morning News and Flak Magazine -- not necessarily "humor sites," but mature publications that take humor seriously. Michael Rosen has edited three terrific volumes of literary humor for Perennial under the "Mirth of a Nation" brand. Meantime David Sedaris and Jon Stewart top the New York Times bestseller lists, and the sit-com is in trouble again (at least in part, according to me, because our collective sense of humor is getting more sophisticated).

Humor is great training no matter what kind of writer you want to be. Humor is all about rhythm and timing and so is good writing (especially thriller writing, where the set-up and payoff is really not so different from a joke, structurally). Humor teaches you to be economical with words, and that subtle differences in language can make a big difference. (In my Modern Humorist days, I remember a long and heated argument with an editor about why the phrase "Buddha-shaped bong" was not as funny as "bong shaped like a Buddha.")

Of course, maintaining a consistently funny voice across the length of a novel is extremely difficult. The really successful comic novel is pretty rare, I think. I read one recently -- Sam Lipsyte's HomeLand -- but I've also gone years without reading one that's great. When they happen -- The Loved One, Lucky Jim, Confederacy of Dunces, Catch-22, Hitchhiker's Guide -- man, they're just magic. And as you say, it is frequently the best way to make a point. At its essence, laughter is the recognition of truth. It's impossible to argue with someone who has just made you laugh. Impossible.

RB: (Since I was laughing, I couldn't argue with that and so posed my last question.) Is working on your second solo harder or easier than the first?

KG: As I was writing Cast of Shadows, I didn't know if anyone was going to read it. I didn't even know if I was going to like it enough to bother an agent with it. Most of my friends and neighbors weren't even aware I was working on a novel. There was no pressure at all. The only thing I had -- after I had worked on it for about a year -- was this weird anxiety that someone else was about to publish a novel with a similar premise. It was incredibly neurotic, especially for me. For about six months, I was afraid to open the Book Review every week, seriously.

Writing the second novel of a two-book deal is very different. At some point in the near future I'm going to send a manuscript-in-progress to my agent and my editor. Together we'll coax it to completion. The book I'm writing now has an audience waiting for it. As a result, I'm feeling two distinct types of pressure, both self-generated and with opposite charges: On one hand I feel pressure to duplicate what I've done in some respect -- to write a book that can hopefully generate as positive a response -- but on the other hand I don't want to repeat myself. So while book two (working title Multiple Masters) could be described broadly in similar terms -- it's a thriller that also explores philosophical ideas -- it's also very different in terms of structure and story.

The other thing that's different now is I have a son (Max was born two months after I sold Cast of Shadows to Knopf). Thanks to the advance and the incredible hard work and good will of my wife, Mo, I have the joy and privilege of being a stay-at-home dad. But my writing schedule is at the total mercy of an 18-month-old child. It's the best, I tell you, but my definition of a "good day writing" has been scaled back by about a thousand words.

RB: I'm looking forward to your next book, but delighted you have such a satisfying reason for delaying it. Kevin, I really I enjoyed this. Thanks for your time and thoughtful answers.

KG: This has been fun, Ron. Thanks again. I'm glad we did this by e-mail because you've asked me questions that really made me think.

Look for my review of Kevin's first novel on Rambles.NET. Those who haven't read Cast of Shadows yet should give it a try. Whether you're a fan of thoughtful SF, philosophical thrillers or just well-written novels, you're not likely to be disappointed.

by Ron Bierman
24 September 2005