Michael Kimball has an uncanny ability to parse the most strange and painful parts of being a person into something most anyone could comprehend. Whether he’s writing about suicidal weathermen (as in his 2008 novel, Dear Everybody) or an elderly couple on the cusp of death (last year’s Us), Kimball’s unwaveringly wise balance of tone, humor, and beautifully tweaked simplicity allows him to create narratives that in lesser hands would seem morbid, or insane.
His latest novel, Big Ray, continues in this tradition, aiming an eye at a son dealing with the death of his abusive, super-obese father (a portion of which you might remember from this year’s fiction issue). Somehow it manages to be simultaneously Kimball’s most brutal and heartfelt and blackly hilarious book yet, mixing an unblinkingly meticulous flood of jokes and facts and memory into a mediation on the peculiar ways we deal with grief. There aren’t many who could present conflicted acts of mourning into a page turner that even Oprah would get behind, but once again Kimball has.
VICE: The voice of this book is really distinct, and surprising in that it sounds like something Michael Kimball could have written, while managing to be quite different from your previous work. I think I remember you mentioning you started into the voice almost incidentally, in the middle of a totally different project where the way of speaking that became the novel just started happening. Do you have any idea where it came from or what made that happen?
Michael: I thought Big Ray was going to be a chapter in a different novel. I had written the first three chapters of this other novel, over 100 pages, and I had a list of themed chapters I was going to write. Something compelled me to skip ahead to what was supposed to be Chapter 13, which I was just calling “Fathers.” It was one of those times as a writer where you just follow the energy, that buzz in your head. The father chapter started coming out in pieces, discrete chunks of dad, one thought leading to another thought. I felt possessed by the voice: I was just writing everything down as fast as I could and trying to stay out of its way. I could feel that voice just ripping through me, but I also felt that voice was taking me someplace new, so I just kept following it. Sometime after the chapter passed 100 pages, it became clear Big Ray was its own separate thing.
The book seems to have a really strange balance between fiction and memoir. Like, this father in the book is severely obese, as was your father, and I notice many of your personal qualities in the narrator. On the other hand, some moments seem more fabricated or stretched from truth than others, the character has a different name than you, and the book is couched as fiction. Was this something you were aware of messing with while you were going forward, and how much did that balance affect the way the story came out?
The novel started out as a memoir of sorts, but I was getting really frustrated with some of the actual details of my father’s life. They seemed less true and were definitely less interesting than things I could imagine. So at some point, I went back and culled out what seemed like a lot of unnecessary detail, even though it was real life. After deciding it was a novel, I let myself go more—tried to get at something more true by writing it as fiction. Most of the horrible stuff in the novel happened in one way or another, but there is some stretching in there. For instance, I did take my father’s ashes on a trip to Las Vegas and spread them in different casinos, but I made up the part about buying his ashes the breakfast buffet.
Did writing in this way affect you differently than with your previous novels? You always have a pretty high level of emotion going into ideas, but this one seems like it must have been particularly personal, even if only realized after it was complete. For example, I noticed there was a lot more humor flowing through here, even if the jokes were often black as fuck when you took a step back.
I can’t remember how I stumbled on the idea of incorporating those “so fat” jokes and then the dead dad jokes, but that was a kind of breakthrough for me. At first, I thought it was a terrible idea, but as soon as I thought that I realized that I had to put those jokes in the novel. And doing that allowed a range of tone I had never found with my other books—and that, in a way, made the novel more particularly personal. When I finished writing the novel, I felt a kind of relief and release. I felt lighter and taller. Finishing Big Ray opened me up and made me feel easier in the world.
What do you think your father would think if he read this book?
My father would never read this book, and not just because he’s dead, but because he never read any of my books and almost none of anybody else’s books either. But if there were a version of my father who read books, he’d probably begin the novel with some kind of excitement, since his name is on the cover. As he read on, he might be pleased to realize somebody wrote a novel about him. He might also have some alternative explanations or alternative versions for certain sections of the novel, but they would be rationalizations, the way abusers rationalize their behavior—just playing rough, just helping you get dressed or tucking you in, maybe loving too much, etc. But even the version of Big Ray who reads might not finish Big Ray. He’d know that it isn’t going to turn out well for him.
This book again marks a change in your direction, though you continue to maintain a certain tone that makes your work easily recognizable as yours. When thinking about all your works so far I wonder if you see something in them that ties them together? I also wonder if you can pinpoint how you are able to shift perspective so much from book to book and still have an underlying quality that is Michael Kimball?
Big Ray does feel like an aesthetic and maybe an emotional culmination of sorts. I feel as if I took the emotional sentences from those middle sections of Us, some of the form from Dear Everybody, and the condensed ways of telling lots of stories from the postcard life story project. There’s a progression there and a kind of culmination of family content too. But that underlying quality, I feel as if it must be a kind of sentence that I go back to over and over again—a certain headlong syntax, a particular sense of detail, a tone that is full of feeling—those things that make a sentence feel right to me. Also, the big change for me with Big Ray is the narrator. Almost all of my first-person narrators are naïve or have limited perspective in some way—by age, say, or mental illness or grief. The narrator in Big Ray is a knowing narrator, facing everything head-on.
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