How does one define success? What do we mean by real love? Why is perception often more powerful than reality?
If you’re looking for actual answers to these questions, perhaps you should be seeking another dimension in The Twilight Zone; but if you enjoy exercising your right cerebrum hemisphere and probing some of life’s deeper issues in what may be called the Existential Zone, particularly through the figments of a writer’s imagination, you should find equally fascinating the soul of fictional character Charles Lime and the fertile mind of author Randall DeVallance.
In the following interview, Mr. DeVallance helps us understand a little better the inner essence of his anomic creation, Charles Lime, the twenty-something, dreamy misfit of The Absent Traveler, a forthcoming Atticus Books title. Charles could be described as the literary cousin of Meursault, the largely emotionally detached French man in Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
Charles also could be seen as an American paradox living a two-bit lie and incapable of taking a risk. Or maybe he’s a New Millennial victim of a factory belching, one-horse town, trapped in a dead-end job with mind escape his only form of amusement. Readers get to take their pick. Mr. DeVallance, the maker of the parallel universes in which Charles alternately “travels” from and to—Western Pennsylvania and Bulgaria, has his own take.
Atticus Books: How would you classify Charles Lime? Is he a loser? Slacker? Dreamer? Escapist? Is he broken-hearted, or broken-spirited? (Is there a difference between the two?)
Randall DeVallance: There’s a little of all these things in him. Definitely he’s a dreamer, but in a sense it’s out of necessity. He doesn’t have a lot else, or at least he doesn’t believe that he does. I would classify him as someone on the verge of broken-spiritedness, but who clutches at any straw he can find that he believes might bring him happiness. He’s not one of those people who take pleasure in gloom, so to speak. He wants to be happy, and he wants to feel like his life has purpose. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear that he takes many concrete, positive steps to improve his station in life. Does that make him a slacker? Or does he just not know what he needs to do or how to go about doing it?
A lot of the specifics about how Charles got to where he is at the start of the book, I left out; I wanted that vagueness there, so that your view of him as a person depends a lot on your own attitude towards life and success and what’s possible to achieve. I’m fascinated by the snap judgments people make about others whom they’ve just met and know very little about, the assumptions we have about a person’s character based solely off things like that person’s manner of dress or where they live or income or profession — things that are superficial in the end, but which we imbue with a great deal of importance. In that sense, the question of whether Charles is a “loser” is a completely subjective one, and I would say, inextricably tied to the question of his own happiness. The fact that he’s unhappy and feels lost might make the answer ‘yes,’ but I personally would hesitate to ever say that about him myself.
AB: Charles doesn’t have the healthiest relationship with his father. Is he emotionally damaged or numbed by his father’s verbal abuse, and if so, has that contributed to the life situation he finds himself in? Or is Charles’ lifestyle intentionally modeled in defiance of his father’s world views/definition of success?
RD: I don’t believe Charles is emotionally damaged by his father’s abuse – not consciously anyway. He certainly doesn’t model his lifestyle to gain acceptance from, or to defy, either of his parents. Undoubtedly, the way his parents treat him reinforces certain of his behaviors — his mother’s leniency and unwillingness to let him hit bottom allow him to avoid making difficult changes, while his father only helps to convince him that there’s nothing better out there for him, nothing he has the intelligence or ability to accomplish.
AB: When Charles escapes into one of his reveries, he imagines himself in Bulgaria and revels in the sights, sounds, and smells of an exotic land. This seems to be his way of coping with a mundane, frustrating, and lonely existence. Is this really the only exit he can fathom, due to his tight financial straits?
RD: It is the exit most appealing and most available to him. It was an outlet for escape that presented itself to him at a young age and has kept him fixated ever since. The idea of leaving everything behind and travelling to a far-off, unfamiliar land is very powerful, especially when you feel dissatisfied and displaced in your own life. It’s a blank slate, a complete do-over where no one knows you or has preconceived ideas about who you are. It also allows one a sense of accomplishment that’s wholly unearned — if you hear that an old high school classmate of yours is unemployed and bumming around your home town, you might think he’s a failure; find out that same friend is living halfway across the world — Malaysia or Kenya or Nepal — and suddenly they’re cast in a different light, even if all they’re actually doing is lying around there wasting time. Travel allows the traveler to appropriate some of the exoticness and mystique of the places he visits.
For people like Charles, it should be said, the idea is always more powerful than reality—Charles would never be able to follow through on crossing the globe and living in a foreign country. The cross-cultural misunderstandings, the confusing and often dangerous situations that can arise, the loneliness and boredom that make up a big part of travelling, would prove much too much for him to bear.
The idea of leaving everything behind and travelling to a far-off, unfamiliar land is very powerful, especially when you feel dissatisfied and displaced in your own life. It’s a blank slate, a complete do-over where no one knows you or has preconceived ideas about who you are. ~ Randall DeVallance, author of The Absent Traveler
AB: Does Charles represent a typical 20-something, college-educated male living in Small Town USA with a worthless History degree? Is he a victim of a bad economy, bad parenting, and/or bad decisions? Is he one of society’s accident statistics?
RD: Well, more and more he’s coming to represent a typical 20-something — not just with a “worthless” History degree, but any degree. (I would argue every year that passes, all degrees are becoming worth less and less.) Certainly the state of the economy and the difficulty college grads are having now finding a decent job is going to lead to a lot more disaffection and soul-searching and confusion. But I don’t want to say that I intended Charles to represent an entire demographic. And it’s also true, as you mentioned in your question, that Charles’s parents and his own decisions have played a large part in where he finds himself. You can find myriad examples of young people making a go of it right now, despite circumstances. So it’s not impossible. On the other hand, there are those who do everything “right” — get good grades, go to a good college, major in something “marketable”, get their degree — who still find themselves shut out from all the things they associate with adult success — a career, a house, a car, a family, etc. Or that have managed to acquire some of those things, but don’t feel happy or fulfilled. I’m not completely sure Charles even realizes what it is he wants out of life, only that it isn’t what he has now.
AB: Charles has a much better relationship with his mother but she appears to be an enabler. One of the themes The Absent Traveler touches on is the reality of being an adult: it is no longer acceptable to lean on your parents for support, but you can use them as a safety net. Does Charles consciously take advantage of the “safety net” his mother is holding out?
RD: He definitely does, as I’ve touched on before. Just the knowledge that that help is there waiting for him if things ever get too out of control keeps him from making any substantial change in his worldview and how he lives his life. He’s coasting until he figures out what he should do with himself – the problem being, of course, that the only way he’ll ever find that out is by taking some chances, which he’s not prepared to do as long as he’s safe in his current routine.
AB: Charles seems to act without much thought or self-reflection. Is his life a product of chronic thoughtlessness, an inability to map out a life filled with goals and ambitions? Does he really think his melancholy life is worth living?
RD: In a sense, yes, that would be a good way to sum up Charles – a product of chronic thoughtlessness. So following along with that, I don’t think he ever really considered the question of whether “his life was worth living.” He simply exists, and his circumstances — his dead-end job, his crummy apartment — are what they are, and he wishes they were something else. There’s very little sense of responsibility with Charles. As dissatisfied as he is with his current situation, he rarely takes the time to consider what it is he finds important in life. That’s why I think he gravitates towards these exotic travel stories — they represent an eternal dream, something he knows deep down (if he would ever bother to reflect on it) he will never get to do, and so he fixates on them and idealizes the idea of travel as the answer to all his problems.
On the other hand, I have some sympathy for Charles. We’re constantly told, especially here in the United States, that anyone can achieve their dreams if they have a plan and work hard enough. Clearly, that’s not entirely true. For someone to succeed, someone else has to fail, and while this competitive system might be the most productive, and the best way to foster innovation and creativity, some people will invariably slip through the cracks. I’m very interested in the idea of free will and fate, and how much control any individual really has over their own life. Here in the United States, we believe it’s almost entirely down to free will. In other countries (Bulgaria being one) they believe fate or luck play a much bigger role in one’s life, and that most circumstances are beyond one’s control. I tend to take the middle ground.
AB: The novella begins with Jasmine’s sudden reappearance in Charles’ life. She seems to awaken him from a long slumber. The thought of Jasmine energizes Charles, makes him act spontaneous and foolish – in short, makes him seem more alive. Did Charles truly love Jasmine, or was it merely an infatuation that he fed because it inspired him to make changes in his life? Is Charles even capable of real love?
RD: Well, your last question gets me into the sticky business of trying to define what is “real love.” I’m going to sidestep that for the moment and just focus on Charles and Jasmine’s relationship. They don’t know each other all that well. They’re two people who have been in proximity to each other for much of their lives, and that gives them a sense of familiarity, but their understanding of each other is rather superficial. I do think that in his own way Charles loves Jasmine, much in the same way that he loves travel — as a concept, an idealized version of what he believes, in this case, a real girlfriend might be. That’s why when he finds his feelings unrequited it comes as such a surprise and a blow to him. In the books he reads, he never has to experience the negative side of travel firsthand; even when a story is recounting some harrowing moment, Charles only experiences it anecdotally. He has nothing at stake. His feelings for Jasmine, and his half-hearted attempt to win her affection, is one of the first times he’s ever opened himself up to the possibility of failure. In that way, Charles might be too naive to be capable of what most of us would consider real love, but his feelings are sincere.
AB: Who are your greatest inspirations and influences as a writer? Was there a particular writer or group of writers who influenced the story of Charles Lime?
RD: Well, if we’re talking about who inspired me to read and to care about literature in the first place, then I would have to start with Dostoevsky. I was a sporadic reader from the time I was a little kid, but reading Crime and Punishment when I was fifteen was the first time I realized what literature was really capable of. I suppose that’s why I’ve always had an affinity for Russian writers — Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, Nabokov. I appreciate writers with a great sense of humor, and I think humor is one of the more rare and underrated qualities in writing — P.G. Wodehouse comes to mind right away; also, Anthony Burgess. I think Enderby’s Dark Lady might be the funniest book I’ve ever read, although the language is very dense, and it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I also appreciate writers who are spare and simple in their language without sacrificing complexity in a story — Camus, Hemingway, Orwell, Raymond Chandler, etc. And Celine — Journey to the End of the Night was like a punch to the gut the first time I read it.
AB: While writing The Absent Traveler, were you particularly influenced by any authors in the existential philosophy camp? (Charles reminds us a bit of the protagonist in Albert Camus’ The Stranger.)
RD: Well, I did mention Camus, and, in fact, I had just finished reading The Plague and The Fall not long before I started writing my book. I’ve always had a thing for the Existentialists, which I attribute to my French genes and theennui that is my genetic inheritance.
AB: How did your experience with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria influence your crafting of the story?
RD: Well, for one, it gave me an obvious setting for Charles to daydream about! But beyond that, it made me reflect how different my experience in Bulgaria was from how I had imagined it would be before I left. It’s not even big things. Little details as simple as the way the air feels on your skin, the shapes of the houses, the music coming from the cafes — none of it matched exactly my expectations. From the second I arrived there, my first few weeks were nothing but a steady repudiation of all my preconceived notions. And in many ways, the reality was better. I think there’s an important lesson in that. Reality will never be as flawless as your dreams, and that’s a good thing. Failure is fine, but to not try — to watch your all-too finite time on this earth slip away unused — is the saddest fate imaginable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Randall DeVallance is the author of the short novel, Dive (2004), and the short-story collection, Sketches of Invalids (2007). His stories have appeared in several anthologies and more than 30 print and online publications including McSweeney’s, Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, Vestal Review, and Word Riot. He lives in New York City.