Carlo Matos is an Azorean-American writer currently living in Chicago, IL, where he teaches English at the City Colleges of Chicago by day and trains cage fighters by night. After hours he can be found entertaining clients at the Chicago Poetry Bordello. He is also the poetry editor for City Brink.
Carlo has published five books: A School for Fishermen (BrickHouse Books), Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (BlazeVox), Ibsen’s Foreign Contagion (Academica Press), Big Bad Asterisk* (BlazeVox), and Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora (forthcoming). His poems, stories and essays have appeared in over a dozen magazines including The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Word Riot, HTML Giant, and DIAGRAM. He blogs at Fighting and Writing.
In this interview with Paper Tape editor, Kristy Harding, Carlo talks about his novella The Secret Correspondence of Loon and Fiasco (Mayapple Press, due December 2014), artificial intelligence, California, and paradox.
PT: Tell us about The Secret Correspondence of Loon and Fiasco.
CM: The Secret Correspondence of Loon and Fiasco is my sixth book. It is a flash novella that centers on the harmless weirdo, Johnny Sundays, who’s left California because he had become stuck in time, stuck in a groundhog day, but in so doing he leaves behind a wife he loves desperately, a decent teaching job, and a secure future. He finds himself in Chicago, where time starts to clack forward again, training cage fighters and slowly falling in love with the chatbot, ALICE. “Meet me on a heathered mountain,” she says one night—and she has him. We come to find out that what drove Johnny out of the California desert—and it’s something he never quite faces in this text [although it is the subject of my flash novella Big Bad Asterisk* from BlazeVOX]—was the fact that they couldn’t have a child. Meanwhile his now ex-wife finds herself going back to the Azorean island of São Miguel to try and raise the ghost of a girl her powerful sorceress grandmother, Elena, cursed in her youth—hoping, I guess—to break the blood curse that may have ruined her marriage. Interestingly, at book’s end, they manage to find their way back to each other.
PT: One of the most striking things about the book, the sort of thing that strikes you immediately when you flip through it, is the long blocks of binary. What inspired that?
CM: Totally separately, I had been working on a series of epistolary poems in binary—simply as a way of taking a break from flash fiction. At the time, I was reading about Alan Turing and the work Bletchley Park did to crack the German Enigma machines in WWII, and I got this idea to do a series of encoded SOS messages between these two characters I invented, Loon and Fiasco. The more I thought about ALICE, however, the more these pieces seemed of a kind—and that’s where the title comes from. Throughout most of the text, Linda ignores all of Johnny’s SOS letters, but after her trip, she finally responds with a coded message of her own: “Are you married, yet? If not, come find me.” This same line sets off the action in Big Bad Asterisk* for the couple who may be the same two people.
PT: There’s a bit of controversy in the reviews of Big Bad Asterisk*. Some of its reviewers thought it was a poetry collection. Others thought it was a novel. The structure of Loon and Fiasco is also rather interesting. There’s a lot of white space. Most pages have only a single, self-contained paragraph. Is it a collection of prose poems? A novel?
CM: That controversy is largely my fault. My previous book, Big Bad Asterisk* (like Loon and Fiasco) is a novella and that is all that seems clear to me in terms of genre. At first I thought it was a prose poem novella. Then I thought it was a flash novella. I am not sure exactly how to categorize the difference, but it seems to me that some of the pieces tend more towards image and wordplay while others tend more towards character development. But even that distinction doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. The poet, Kathleen Rooney called the prose poems in my second book, Counting Sheep Till Doomsday, micro-narratives. This term seems to capture what I am after better than prose poem or flash fiction, but only because it is a bit more elastic.
Originally I had planned Loon and Fiasco as a novel. I spent a couple months gathering ideas and then in one manic, four-week burst during a Christmas break, I wrote 25,000 words. There were some parts I really liked but it felt like I was fighting against the form. It occurred to me a number of times that maybe this wasn’t a novel after all. Big Bad Asterisk* had started as a conventional collection of linked short stories, and I had the same feeling that something was off in the form. When I began to compress and telescope, the thing bloomed. I wondered if the same would happen with this manuscript, and sure enough, the moment I began to compress it came to life. It had known all along what form it wanted. I was resisting it because I wanted to write a novel, but it wasn’t to be this time around. I always know I have made the correct decision when it becomes self-generating; that is, even when I was writing “independent” flash fiction pieces, I would suddenly realize it was the missing piece of chapter 3 or whatever.
Also, many of the moves became clear to me, especially with Linda. I was struggling with her a little. I knew she was going to end up in the Azores. I knew it was going to have something to do with her grandmother, but what and why was eluding me. Long before I had ever written Asterisk*, I had always wanted to write a book with the structural muscle of Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk used the protagonist’s insomnia as a way of getting around the conventional needs of plot structure in a novel, especially connective tissue. He was not beholden to all the “middle” stuff. Instead you get a series of muscular and powerful episodes. It was so simple and yet so inspired. Micro narratives offer me similar possibilities.
PT: Artificial intelligence is a major theme in the book, especially the sections that deal with Fiasco’s relationship with ALICE.
CM: For the last couple of years, I have wanted to do something with the transcripts of the Loebner Prize for artificial intelligence. Although the chatbots haven’t managed to convince any of the judges they are humans so far, they often say surprising and wonderful things. Just when I thought the judges had boggled a bot, it would say something that made me believe, for a second, that it was self-aware. While researching ALICE, I found, to my astonishment, a site where I could actually chat with her. After our very first encounter, the idea for Loon and Fiasco came to me. I realized how easy it would be for someone in the right frame of mind to come to depend on ALICE, maybe even fall in love with her. Why not? It didn’t seem all that different from chatroom or MMORPG romance. I had my way in. A character would fall in love with ALICE. I decided it might be interesting to do a variation on Anna Deavere Smith’s Interview Theater and use the actual transcripts for all interactions between Johnny and ALICE. I spent a lot of time—once I figured out much of the plot arc—having conversations with ALICE. Some nights nothing worked; other nights she was eerily present. It was a great deal of fun and very surreal.
PT: As someone who’s lived in both California and Massachusetts, I was continually delighted by the way Loon and Fiasco captured the essence of those places. Were you writing from experience?
CM: Yes, to some extent. I lived in the Valley for a very short time, exactly a year, but it left a very powerful impact on me and my wife, who did not stay behind in Merced. LOL. We grew up in Massachusetts, surrounded by the ocean and lots of Portuguese people. The Valley—interestingly another place where people from the Azores live—was a total shock to me. The weather, the worldview, the impending doom on the horizon as the housing bubble was about to blow. I have been in Chicago for nearly a decade (and I love it here) but my wife and I say that the one year in Merced feels longer than all the time we’ve spent in Chicago. Place was never really important to my work until I started to move around the country. Merced was the first place I lived that challenged my basic assumptions about how people lived in the United States, and it began to play an important role in my work. I wrote a very long narrative poem called “Stonemasonry” while living in Merced, a poem that would go on to define the nature of my first book of poems, A School for Fishermen. When I moved to Chicago, I wrote a companion narrative poem set in Chicago called “The Permanent Itch.” And then, alienated as I now was from the East Coast, I began to write poems about Massachusetts. Loon and Fiasco is my first extended effort to write about Fall River.
PT: In what ways did Merced change your assumptions about how people live in the United States?
CM: This is actually a very difficult question and part of me knew you were going to push this point when I said it. I honestly thought about removing it. LOL. I think it comes down to the difference between what you know intellectually and what you know from direct experience. Fall River is a small city of less than 89,000 people, and it has high crime, high unemployment and low education. It has ranked in the top five worst places to live, but it was always more my home than the suburb of Somerset where my parents lived and where I went to school. The Portuguese of my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation tended overwhelmingly to work in factories, mills actually. Most of these mills no longer exist, and it has left many of these people without work and without any way to support themselves in their old age. They ruined their health working in these harsh environments and were left with little at the end. It was positively Dickensian, sans the whimsy. I understand—understand, not accept—this kind of poverty, urban poverty, working-class poverty. But when I got to Merced, there was a whole different kind of poverty that I had never encountered directly before. We go from a Dickensian nightmare to one straight out of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I am not saying one is “worse” than the other. That is a kind of comparison that makes no point. I just didn’t grow up in this kind of poverty and wasn’t ready for it—like I had tacitly accepted that the urban poverty of my youth was a part of our “present” set of problems whereas this kind of rural poverty was a thing of the past. Talk about naïve. For example, some of my students would disappear for three weeks at a time because they had to help their parents pick fruit in the fields. It was months before I accidentally came upon a migrant camp, tucked away where no one who lived in town could see them. And then there were the Hmong students, who either were the children of or were themselves refugees from camps in Thailand. It’s like my brain added a secret temporal marker as a way for me not to deal with the realities of how some people live in this country.
PT: My favorite line in the book is: “And no matter how much food they grew, they could never hide the desert from him.” I live in Berkeley, which is a universe away from Merced, but as someone who grew up on the dark, damp soil of New England, living in the desert makes me feel continually edgy as if the entire landscape could evaporate at any moment. And yet California feeds most of the country.
CM: I find it so interesting that you zeroed-in on that line because it was one of the last things I wrote in the manuscript. The piece isn’t new—just that line. The University of California, Merced had just opened its doors when we moved, and they built an entire neighborhood around the little lake to ostensibly house all the people who would be associated with the institution. I remember driving through this neighborhood with Nicole (a writer of fiction and my wife) and feeling like we were in one of those WWII-era military practice towns. You know the ones they used to test bombs on or what have you. Very eerie.
California has always been a place of extremes for me and maybe that’s just because I didn’t live there long enough for my relationship with it to mature. I knew intellectually that it was the place that fed our country but to be there, the overriding feeling was not of abundant life but of survival on the edge. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we didn’t belong there. Riding down highway 99, all I could think about was my crappy car breaking down and people finding only my bleached bones sitting behind the steering wheel. Everything would be dried to a crisp if it wasn’t for the constant irrigation. The feeling never left me as I walked by house after house with their sprinkler systems keeping their lawns green. It seemed so foolhardy to care about your lawn in such a forbidding place. Even their problem with feral cats seemed part and parcel of the foreboding—a warning. You don’t belong. Get out. Of course, to be fair, winter in Merced was quite different. Everything was an easy green. There were wild roses growing on every street corner. Even the tule fog that could sit on the town for a week without letting up was reassuring. I just never realized how much I associated health with change, especially, because I am from New England, in the weather.
PT: The book is full of the tension of these paradoxes—farm/desert, real/unreal, sentient/chatbot.
CM: I never really thought of it like that, but I guess you’re right. It is odd—and wonderful—to think of a desert as a place of abundance—and, of course, the whole point of the Turing Test is to consider the question, not “Can a computer think?” but “Would we be able to recognize it as thinking?” One of the criticisms of the Loebner Prize is that it isn’t really measuring how a computer thinks so much as how good the language program can do an imitation of human cognition as it is represented/structured by our speech. It’s a pretty profound question, of course. Now, in Loon and Fiasco, Johnny is well aware of ALICE’s limitations and yet he can’t help but come to depend on her. Similarly, Linda—not a character who is going to hold much stock in the efficacy of folk magic—finds herself on a beach in São Miguel (the island my parents are from) summoning the ghost of a girl abducted by sirens. I guess they are both after things that cannot be said—those experiences beyond casual language that require the arcane, the scientific, the alien.
I realize now that there are a few other instances of this as regards song, specifically pop songs. At one point, Johnny laments that no love songs exist that truly represent his lost loves in specific, only in general. And there are the pieces about how there are no songs that talk about NOT being able to have a baby. There are plenty of songs about getting knocked up, but what if you’re in your 30s and all of your attempts to have a child fail and it ruins your relationship? Where are those songs? This chasing after the seldom said, the utterly unsaid, the barely knowable, the completely unknowable seems key to the manuscript in some way—not that it was my intention in advance.
Loon and Fiasco
Count the Stars. Warts blooming in Spring.
Today he was listening to all the songs of all the girls he ever loved big or loved small
mixed-tape style. Some include rainy kisses and looks from afar. Many rhyme “girl” and
“world.” All are longing, except for those that are breaking, but those are longing too.
Few sing the starred roof of his crappy car—a gold Hyundai no one would be proud of
but that he was strangely fond of—or the girl who grabbed his crotch backstage after his
big number. He was still so much a boy that he did not sleep for days after remembering
how she smiled wickedly before going for it, clearly acting on a decision she must have
made much earlier in the day. Fewer songs sing the location of a certain couch that made
fingers too fat to button shirts in a hurry and the mother who was not amused, except she
was. And still fewer that shower they took when someone’s mom left town mere hours
before they admitted defeat for the third and final time: the girl he actually kissed without
instructions like the drizzle hitting her grandmother’s porch.
Linda had gone dark. Since the housing bust, the Central Valley had become
increasingly unstable, entire neighborhoods gone ghost town from all the foreclosures.
Of course, he wasn’t sure if you could call some of the neighborhoods ghost towns since
in many cases not a soul had ever lived there. They were model neighborhoods, doll
houses made to scale. Could anything ever live in a place that never touched the normal
press of daily life? And no matter how much food they grew, they could never hide the
desert from him. The water was borrowed and waiting for our time to pass. Everything
went into panic mode: SOS, bottles in the ocean, enigma engaged, hazard lights flashing,
sirens blaring. Get the Hazmat suit, bolt the shelter, and hunker down for the long winter.
He’d didn’t want to be one of those people building a compound in the woods of
Montana waiting for the poor zombies. Architects were already marketing zombie-proof
homes. The long view told him that zombies were probably not very adaptable. They
spread far too quickly and like all young viruses that aggressively kill their hosts, they
had little chance of sustaining themselves for long. He was willing to bet that when the
next global-killing asteroid inevitably made its way to earth, the humans were likely to be
the last ones standing—or the beetles. The beetles were probably next. Gregor Samsa as
missing link. It is always difficult being first.
When a ghost train pulls late into your station, you don’t stand around with an oil lamp in
your hand calling out to whatever is inside—or at least you don’t if you want to survive
the night. Linda wasn’t picking up her cell or her office phone; she wasn’t responding to
his emails; she didn’t even send back smiley faces to his clever texts. His messages went
unanswered, and she loved codes of every invention. He would send a carrier if he
thought she’d intercept with a falcon. He was calling through cupped hands. He was
turning up the oil lamp. At this rate it would be dark soon and whatever had pulled up to
the station was going to make its appearance.