Michael Hoffman

the author of Arimasen

Date:

TBE: What was the inspiration behind “Arimasen“? How did the concept of a place or state of mind that defies traditional definitions come to you?

Michael Hoffman: Slowly, over time. I began writing it I think something like 15 years ago. It wasn’t called Arimasen then but “The Immortality Research Institute,” and was a more or less conventional tale of Neil Grass, son of the Institute’s founder-director, studying bio-chemistry in preparation for a future there but also Greek drama, indulging a long-held interest, and in the drama class he re-encounters his childhood friend Grace Nightingale, a typical boy-meets-girl tale, from which innocent cauldron was to emerge the whole new world I try to create, a world beyond time, space, body, gravity, physics – beyond everything except souls and the link between them—talk. I didn’t succeed, of course – but why talk of success and failure; let the world be beyond them too!

Why create a new world, why not be satisfied with the old one? Because it’s not satisfactory, not big enough for the human spirit (not to mention the awful things we’ve done to it!—maybe the awful things we’ve done to it prove the point that it’s not big enough for us, a kind of prison against whose bars we strain and strain). Be that as it may, there is a point early on at which the story suddenly, so to speak, falls off the deep end into something, a world that is not a world, a universe that is not a universe, where there’s no such thing as truth vs. lies, no consistency of action, no beginning, middle or end, no strict dividing line between one character and another  so that one can easily become another… and there are times when lengthy dialogues unfold in which there is no indication of who is speaking, nor does it matter, any more than it matters, for example, when you listen to choral music, which singer is singing which part in the harmony…

Another thing: there are no computers in Arimasen. They appear in the beginning but soon drop out of the picture altogether, the characters show no knowledge at all of cyberspace and virtual reality, so that in a sense the action seems to go backward in time – to  1969, maybe, a year frequently mentioned, until the calendar as we know it goes the way of cyberspace – out.

TBE: Can you share some of your personal experiences or philosophical influences that shaped the themes in “Arimasen”?

Michael Hoffman: I think my coming to Japan in 40 years ago is probably the seed from which it grew, though I had no notion of it at the time. It really was a kind of rebirth in a new world – everything utterly strange and foreign to me, everything from the language to the mere sight of ordinary people going about their ordinary business, it was fantastic, no doubt I exaggerated it very much in my own mind but it took me years to get over it, or past it, and it left a very strong impression. Now of course what was once so strange is intimately familiar and I can look back laughing, but that may very well be the original seed of what became Arimasen, though it was many years before it germinated into anything recognizable.

TBE: “Arimasen” is heavily dialogue-driven and structurally complex. What was your writing process like for this novel?

Michael Hoffman: There are times when it goes really well and I feel I’m simply transcribing voices I hear in my mind. It’s what every writer lives for. Wish it happened more often. But then, those times – more frequent – when you literally have to struggle for every word, every comma – that’s fun too, you feel like you’re grappling with cosmic forces, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. And I’ve never noticed that the first mood necessarily yields better prose than the second – it could go either way. Anyway, 10 or so years and 1000-odd pages later I went back to the beginning and went at it again. It was like reading someone else’s work for the first time, that’s how much distance I’d gained on it, and I went through it all again, changing almost everything, adding, cutting, revising… and then a third time, and I thought, “I can keep doing this for the rest of my life, maybe making it better each time – but finally you reach a point where you say to yourself, “This is it,”  and you put it out, always with the feeling in the back of your mind, “Maybe I should go through it one more time?”

This is what I kept telling myself throughout the writing: I’ll write with total disregard for what sells, what people are thought to want to read, what reviewers will praise, regarding nothing but my own inclinations. This novel will be me, as I am, good and bad, it will be as true a reflection of me (or as false, if you like) as Rousseau’s Confessions are of him. I’ll defy all the conventional rules of narrative art, all conventional standards. No beginning, no middle, no end. This is inconsistent with that? Good. What I say here contradicts what I said somewhere else? Fine. And the exhilaration you feel writing this way is its own reward.

TBE: How did you approach the task of weaving together the multiple layers of narrative and philosophical discourse in “Arimasen”?

Michael Hoffman: I never thought of it as a “task,” it’s just the way I write naturally, just the way it comes out.

TBE: The characters in “Arimasen” have very fluid identities. How did you develop characters like Neil Grass, Rose, and Simon Carpenter?

Michael Hoffman: I think we all have “fluid identities” (or is it just me?) Let me ramble just a bit: supposing you see a photograph of a small child, and it makes no particular impression on you, and then someone says, “That child is you.” What changes? Anything? Do you look at the child any differently? Supposing as a small child you had a near-death experience. You remember it, but only vaguely, unable to disentangle your own actual memory from what you’ve been told about it. Is that child to whom that happened you? In what sense? What is this “I”, this “you”?  Is the I who had dinner a few hours ago the I who am hungry now? Answering your question is showing me for the first time one of the themes of the novel: it’s an exploration, inconclusive, of what I mean when I say I. 

A word about Rose – Felicity Rose, Fecundity Rose, Rose Petal… the Shakespeare of Arimasen, its greatest writer, mistress of artifice, whose masterpiece is a collection of children’s stories titled Arimasen. We meet her early as Grace’s college roommate and Simon’s student, later his wife – Simon then being a teaching assistant teaching a philosophy seminar course while working toward a PhD – never attained it almost goes without saying – he finds more important things to do. Their son grows up to be Dr. Farr, of whom more below.

TBE: Can you elaborate on the significance of the various roles and transformations that Neil Grass undergoes throughout the novel?

Michael Hoffman: Neil Grass begins as a perfectly ordinary college boy, “neither intelligent nor stupid, neither handsome nor ugly,” who slowly evolves into (or discovers himself to be) infinitely extraordinary, so much so that one world is not enough to contain him and he expresses a feeling he has of being scattered on several worlds – he is vaguely aware of existing on other worlds but has no access to those extra-worldly existences and is unable to get beyond the vague feeling. He feels himself to be guilty of the most appalling crimes and at the same time – though elsewhere – a doer of deeds of such transcendent goodness that he is worshipped as a god, even ritually sacrificed as only a god can be. All that comes later. In the early phases of the novel he is simply a college kid, majoring in biochemistry so as to take over the Immortality Research Institute, and also in Greek drama, which he happens to be fond of.  A perfectly ordinary college kid, in love for the first time with a girl (Grace) he knew from childhood and who plainly is sexually more sophisticated than he is—he in fact admits (unblushingly) to being a virgin.

A turning point in his life is the scene in which Professor Eric Samsa, classical Greek scholar and teacher of the drama class, afflicted with a painful stammer, falters over a text; Neil suddenly springs to his feet and begins reciting, discovering the actor in himself… and from then on we the readers are never quite sure, as the characters are never quite sure, what is “real life” and what is “theater” – or is the “theater” an insane asylum and all the characters undergoing treatment? – or characters who “exist” only by the grace of the pen of the playwright Simon Carpenter, who thinks (is this his madness, or does he speak truly?) he “created” all the characters, Neil Grass and everyone else?

TBE: The novel delves into themes such as reality, identity, and the quest for meaning. What do you hope readers take away from these explorations?

Michael Hoffman: The suspicion that reality, identity and meaning are all deeper and more ambiguous, more “fluid,” to use your expression, than they had previously supposed. That the conventional notion, basis of Western science, that there exists an “objective” reality out there that is distinct from the “subjective” I, is questionable. That there is no such thing as reality independent of and external to me, or you. On that theme: Rose, at the very beginning, pleads for the right to talk nonsense, saying it’s the gateway to truth. Her plea for nonsense is mine.

A propos – a persistent theme is the relation of language to that which language tries to express, the correspondence between words and sentences on the one hand and “reality,” “experience” on the other. Is there a correspondence? At one point it is suggested that speech (and by extension writing) will eventually evolve into music.

TBE: Immortality is a key theme in “Arimasen.” What are your thoughts on the ethical and existential implications of eternal life?

Michael Hoffman: I am incapable of imagining non-being. Certainly I am incapable of imagining my nonbeing. Does that make me immortal? I suppose not. But the story that began as the Immortality Research Institute takes off from actual immortality research, most notably by a gerontologist named Aubrey de Grey, who claims immortality as a scientific and medical, not religious or philosophical, potential. He’s said the first human immortal has already been born. Parenthetically: my fictional Institute’s founder, Neil’s father Roger Grass, was forced to resign by a funding scandal; just now I see de Grey was forced to resign from his institute over a sex scandal. Life imitating art?

I imagine my Dr. Alex Farr (Simon and Rose’s son) as a master pharmacologist and disciple of a fictionalized de Grey; he invents an immortality pill, along with other pills that cure every illness and discomfort known to our species. Nonsense of course, as Dr. Farr laughingly admits…

TBE: “Arimasen” is divided into four distinct parts, each exploring different facets of the central concept. How did you decide on this structure, and what challenges did you face in maintaining coherence across these sections?

Michael Hoffman: The passage from Arimasen Bound (Part 1)  to Arimasen Boundless (Part 2)  is Reason bursting like an eggshell round the new hatchling. This bursting is the “Singularity,” which some say occurred while others say there was no such thing and go on living in the old way – absurdly, say those who are ware of the Singularity (aware of it but know not what it is).

“Palimpsest” (Part 3)  – the whole undertaking is a palimpsest really, written and rewritten over 15 or so years, with traces of its earliest versions still visible (or otherwise perceptible) beneath the surface.

Then there’s ”Zuihitsu” (Part 4)  …. the “rock’n roll Zuihitsu.” “Zuihitsu” is a Japanese classical literary term meaning literally “follow the brush” – the writing brush – i.e. just write freely as it comes; it’s a genre that has an honored place in Japan’s literary canon, and I’ve always liked it myself (though unfortunately I must savor it in translation; classical Japanese is way out of my range). What ancient Japanese writers would have thought of rock’n roll is an interesting but unanswerable question, not raised here. My Zuihitsu began as a separate undertaking altogether, an attempt to write a long nonfiction essay on rock (“what would Beethoven have thought of it?”), but over time it grew fictionalized, my imaginary rock stars replaced real ones, and the (fictional) archetypal rock band the Statesmen, fronted by twin brothers Rick (the songwriter a.k.a. Asaph the Psalmist) and Murray (the singer, a.k.a. Muri, a.k.a. King Darius, a.k.a. The Voice) Statesman (real surname Kurtz, a.k.a. Bell, Bellwether and various others) merged into Arimasen as Muri falls from grace into a dazed second childhood and rises again to political power.

TBE: The meta-narrative elements, particularly through Simon Carpenter’s unfinished play, add a unique layer to the story. How do you see this aspect contributing to the overall narrative?

Michael Hoffman: Simon thinks he’s the “author” of everything that happens and everyone it happens to—or maybe he just pretends to think that – or maybe he’s crazy and Arimasen isn’t a planet or a world at all but a lunatic asylum. What’s “fiction” and what’s “real”? Don’t we all imagine the world(s) we live in? Simon’s role is to blur the distinctions between reality and imagination, reason and nonreason, reason and sanity—in fact, all distinctions—to fuse all opposites, to philosophically challenge Western philosophy’s core premise, the law of non-contradiction…

TBE: Your writing style in “Arimasen” is both lyrical and dense. Which authors or literary works have influenced your style?

Michael Hoffman: Zen, Dylan, Dostoevsky. Those are the three main influences, I think. From Zen and Dylan I learned what I call “beautiful meaninglessness.” Dostoevsky… I was still a teenager when I first encountered him. Crime and Punishment. I read and thought to myself, “This is what I wanna do when I grow up.” Dostoevsky taught me to see into the human soul. He’s teaching me still. Otherwise? Every flower I see, every bird I hear, is an influence. There’s so little beauty left in the world. But there is some… You see a flower or hear a bird and suddenly an idea is born in your mind which has nothing to do with either bird or flower. It’s a whole vast subject: just what is an idea, and where does it come from? Writers,  carry a notebook with you on your walks. Those not captured immediately soon vanish.

TBE: How important is it for you to balance philosophical depth with narrative engagement in your writing?

Michael Hoffman: Very. Two thoughts suggest themselves. (1) Narrative engagement is vital; if the reader is not grabbed, you’re failing as a writer via that reader. Well, ok, you can’t grab everyone, you can’t appeal to everyone, certainly I can’t; all I  hope to do is appeal to the sort of reader who will respond to the way I write. They may be few but I know there are some, I’ve had proof of it over the years. I would hope the reader is engaged to the point of reading with absorption and pleasure and then suddenly looking up from the page and crying, “I don’t understand a thing! What’s going on? Who’s who?” – and then going back to the text with heightened pleasure.

(2) Philosophy: my philosophy is that philosophy is not an academic discipline (or  not only that) but a characteristically human activity – all humans, by virtue of being human, are philosophers, in the sense of thinking about things and not being content with easy answers – thinking for the sake of thinking. What is philosophy? It is each one of us thinking at the peak of his or her power of thought – however high or low that power may be relative to academic (or any other) standards. Some people have more powerful brains than others, there’s no denying that, but I say each of us, however mentally average, is a philosopher when thinking his or her hardest and best. Aristotle says somewhere that human beings’ deepest pleasures are sex and thought. Yeah.

TBE: What do you think is the most challenging aspect for readers when engaging with “Arimasen,” and how would you advise them to approach the novel?

Michael Hoffman: With joy. With laughter.  As an invitation to revel in the joyous senselessness of life. This is play, not work. Most challenging aspect? Probably that nothing adds up, things don’t make sense, aren’t meant to; any reader who can’t or refuses to accept that will be like someone walking in zero gravity, or breathing the very thin air of very high mountains. It takes some getting used to. Those willing to make the effort will find their reward in the form of (I hope) a good read. To me, “a good read” is the highest and deepest literary experience there is – writing a good read for the writer, reading a good read for the reader.

TBE: Are there any themes or concepts from “Arimasen” that you plan to explore further in your future works? Can you share any details about your upcoming projects or what readers can expect from you next?

Michael Hoffman: With particular pleasure, because Arimasen is not finished – nor begun for that matter—since it no more has a beginning than it has an end. I’ll be writing Arimasen for the rest of my life. The sequel now in the works is (tentatively) titled “Arimasenka” – which grammatically turns “Arimasen,” “is not,” into a question: “Is it not?” I said above that I failed to quite transcend time and space. Arimasenka hopefully takes us farther in that direction, though no doubt it too will fail… (in passing: I have nothing against failure, I’m all for it, I’ve found it a much deeper experience than success, though certainly success is more fun) but Arimasenka will have its own sequel, and so on and so on… I hope incidentally to publish sequels (or “editions” ) on an annual basis – so hopefully Arimasenka will be published in 2025.

One of the difficulties has been the need to invent a new vocabulary for time. What to use instead of “year,” “month,” “week,” etc? I tried various things: “eons,” “eras,” or, borrowing from Japanese, “jidai,” “sedai” – but failed to achieve consistence – which failure may be instructive after all: maybe consistency is not to be, maybe inconsistency strikes the right note…

TBE: Writing a novel as intricate as “Arimasen” must have been a significant journey. What did you learn about yourself as a writer during this process?

Michael Hoffman: Oh yeah, a very significant journey, and “journey” is the word! – the word I’ve used throughout in my own thoughts about the novel. It’s the journey of a lifetime. One thing I learned about myself is that I am not who I think I am. Nor are my characters.  Who, then? I don’t know! Another thing I learned about myself: I don’t know, and not knowing is maybe richer and deeper than knowing. Knowing (maybe) closes the mind; not knowing opens it.

TBE: What message or feeling do you hope lingers with readers after they finish “Arimasen”? Is there anything else you would like to share about “Arimasen” or your experience writing it?

Michael Hoffman: Supposing I leave the first part of this question to the reader. Far be it from me to prescribe a response. I’m honored by any response. I’m sure many readers will see things in the novel that never occurred to me – and they’re there because they’re seen to be—whatever’s seen to be is. 

As to the second part of the question: I’ve led a pretty happy and lucky life, all in all, but writing Arimasen has been and continues to be the most wonderful and astonishing experience I have ever had…

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Arimasen by Michael Hoffman
  • Publisher: VBW Publishing
  • Genre: Fantasy, Literary Fiction
  • First Publication: 2024
  • Language: English

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