As Americans, we are driven by obsession, success, and secrets. In Murray Farish’s collection of short stories Inappropriate Behavior (Milkweed Press), we meet Americans whose impulsive, often destructive urges are on the verge of exploding their normal lives into the realm of weird and unrecognizable. Yet, there is something shockingly familiar, darkly funny, and human about all Farish’s protagonists. Whether they are writing love songs to Jodie Foster and stalking college co-eds, worshipping a cult-like figure in an office building parking lot, or spying on naked neighbors, Farish’s characters are sympathetic and soulful despite—or perhaps because of—their deviance. Set mostly in a South that straddles the landscape between strip malls and lush, green, almost tropical heat, Farish captures modern America in all its crumbling, winning-obsessed, alienating glory. Inappropriate Behavior is a naughty, smart, comic, bereft, rich, seductive collection of truly modern American tales. We spoke with Farish about getting outside our own reality, lone rangers, alternate universes, transgression, and hidden lives.
ROYAL YOUNG: You have a line, “We all want different lives.” Let’s talk about a yearning to get outside of your reality.
MURRAY FARISH: There’s an extent to which a lot of people feel that way. People always say how happy they are all the time, but that strikes me as the kind of thing you tell pollsters. If they caught you in your own personal dark night of the soul, you might have a different answer. We grow up in America with so much pressure placed on the individual. There’s a standard path you can walk you’re told will lead to American success. If you do good in school, you go to a good college, you join the right fraternity or sorority, take the right internships, then you have a career which leads to partnerships which leads to vacations in the Caribbean and a nice retirement package and you die at 90 surrounded by your loved ones peacefully in your bed. Anyone who wants to take that path can’t deviate from it one bit. If they do and things don’t work out, that’s the mistake the one individual made. If you try to go your own way and you fail, it’s on you.
YOUNG: In America we have the myth of the lone ranger, one person who strikes out on their own against the world. We celebrate that, but at the same time it’s punished, because we look around at what everyone else has and it can be very tempting but at the same time suffocating.
FARISH: Right, and then we look at all the people we tend to celebrate succeeding as lone rangers and you never see all the support they had along the way. The myth has to be perpetuated.
YOUNG: A lot of your characters become obsessed with something or someone.
FARISH: I think you should write out of your obsessions. I have certain obsessions I keep coming back to, like the weird. The thing that is unaccountably strange. I really do feel like there’s a weirdo-verse, a world beside our universe we don’t quite see or understand, and all it takes is a little bump to knock us into it. I’m drawn to characters that are pushed to their extremes. I’m obsessed with people who cross lines and know the things they’re doing are wrong, but they think somehow they can make it right or crossing that line will make right whatever is wrong in their lives.
YOUNG: Do you feel like transgression happens more often where you are in the South? Growing up in New York, I saw so much of that; it’s just not here anymore, and I’m wondering where it’s gone.
FARISH: Was that the Giuliani influence?
YOUNG: Yes, but also a whitewashing I’ve seen in general in major cities. Cities have become tame. The worst thing a kid growing up in downtown New York today will see is someone not recycling. [laughs]
YOUNG: I miss transgression in everyday life.
FARISH: There are places in St. Louis you can go to see your version of a Lower East Side childhood, but we don’t go to those places. I think people over the last generation or so of Americans, maybe a bit longer, just feel intense pressure. A lot of that is the famous pressure to succeed, everything is so precarious and feels temporary. That is the sort of pressure that would lead humane ordinary people to see a line and cross it. I think about transgression more in the venal sense than the moral sense. It’s the little things that build up and creep through your soul over a lifetime. We’re not living in a Taxi Driver New York or an America like that anymore, but there are now more opportunities for little sins.
YOUNG: Yes, and in a way I think the small sins are more dangerous because they’re shellacked over with this gloss.
FARISH: Absolutely. We go to Target here a lot. I see otherwise ordinary families, but when you are shopping behind people, you get to know them. I sometimes hear them talking to their kids, and they are so unbelievably nasty. I am judging them, but I am thinking, “What is going on in this person’s life that they would say such horrible things to a seven-year-old?” Those are the sort of lines I am interested in, but also the lines that separate us from each other.
YOUNG: Do you think that illusions are destined to break?
FARISH: Well, it is probably best if they break sooner rather than later. One of the things that constantly seems true to me about America is that we have abjured any notion of our common destiny. Instead of the self-governing collectives we’re just going to leave everything up to other people and I think that is a great mistake. If you don’t take it, someone else will always take the job.
YOUNG: A lot of your characters have hidden lives. What happens when we hide a huge part of our life?
FARISH: I had an amazing writing teacher in college who said, “The thing about secrets is that they’re always true.” Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds true. Secrets are definitely things we want to protect, because if we let them out they would hurt us. Even if we are not enjoying our secrets, we are very protective of them. You never really know what’s going on behind the façade.
MURRAY FARISH’S INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR IS OUT TODAY.