This System Speaks a Language That Hardly Anyone Understands: A Conversation with Bette Adriaanse

By James Tadd Adcox


‘Home Is Where’ by Bette Adriaanse. Pencil on layered calque paper. 38 x 28 cm.

Dutch author and visual artist Bette Adriaanse was in the U.S. recently, touring to promote her debut novel, Rus Like Everyone Else (Unnamed Press, 2015). While in Chicago, she read at the Lies Fiction Reading series at Café Mustache, where I had the chance to talk with her some about her work. She was a wonderful reader, with sharp comic timing, and a way of conveying that she, too, was often surprised by the events she narrated, but what could you do? Her visual art seems in many ways to complement her writing: she makes use of bold, vibrant colors in her paintings, and her sculpture gives one the impression of human and animal forms transmuting into complex, absurd machines.

She was kind enough to agree to the following  interview, conducted via email during the remainder of her tour.

How did this book come about? You’ve published a couple of sections as short stories in magazines previously. Was the idea originally for a novel, or were these shorter pieces that fit together and got bigger?

The very first part of this book I wrote when I was doing my Bachelor’s at the Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy in Amsterdam—I was studying at a combined visual art/writing department—as a short story called “Rus and the Seagull.”

This story was about a young man named Rus who works at an office but is unable to behave in the way that is expected of him. His manager tries to steer him in the right direction by giving him extensive advice on what is acceptable in a corporate environment, but Rus is unable to fit in.

At the time, I liked the story but did not know what to do with it.

Later, when I started the part-time Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University, I took on a side job delivering the mail. From the experiences I had bringing letters, bills, and warnings, and meeting the people I delivered the mail to, other characters started to emerge. These characters were people who were caught in some kind of urban isolation. The character of Rus also came back to me. I started to realize who he was and how he ended up in that situation at his office, behaving as if he just landed on earth. He was a young man who had lived a sheltered life in an unregistered, illegally built apartment. His mother homeschooled him, and when she abandoned him she left him a debit card that he uses to get his daily coffee and groceries. Even though he lives in a big city, he never interacts with it.

Structo, a British literary magazine, published one of the first chapters from Rus, where he has just received his first tax bill ever and tries to return it at the post office.

When I read this chapter and another chapter about a socially awkward secretary at the Structo launch party, the response from the audience was great. People seemed to recognize something of themselves in the characters, which gave me a real boost.

I continued writing down whatever scenes came to me, realizing they were all connected and this would be a novel. How their story lines would tie up, I didn’t know yet. I made small drawings for each scene I wrote, and started moving chapters around, deleting bits and connecting bits. When I realized all the characters would be at or near a War Memorial service in the City, I knew it would come together as a novel.

It’s interesting that the idea for Rus began with that scene in the office. The synopsis on the book’s cover says that “Rus is forced to get a job and pay taxes, like everyone else,” which sounds as if the book might be a coming-of-age novel—we’ll see Rus maturing, learning how to be an adult, etc—but that’s rather defiantly not what the book’s about. Instead, when Rus is forced to get a job, it feels like a fall from grace.

Do you have similar work experiences to Rus and Laura, the secretary character? I read Rus around the same time as I was reading a book on work resistance, David Frayne’s The Refusal of Work from Zed Books, and felt like there was a certain overlap of ideas going on.

I haven’t read The Refusal of Work, but I’d like to. Before I wrote that first piece about Rus in the office, I remember I had an experience trying to return a damaged passport at the City offices, where the lady at the counter told me my reason to return the passport—”Damaged”—was not acceptable to the computer and I had to choose between “Stolen” or “Lost.”

“This system speaks a language that hardly anyone understands,” she explained. “I cannot change it. You have to give an answer that fits in the system. If it does not fit in the system, it doesn’t exist at all.”

I thought this was funny and it stayed in my mind for a long time; thinking about the systems in our lives, how regulated our work, our lives and our behavior are. Later, when I had that job delivering the mail, I noticed just how many people were struggling with modern life in the city. I delivered so many debt-related letters and letters from governmental organizations, from the court, from the taxes, from Job Support. People were caught up in systems or their particular situation did not fit into to the systems. I started thinking about the society we have created and about the progress we have made.

In nature, when you are born, the only things that are needed for survival are finding food and shelter each day, and perhaps also to be part of a community. In our modern Western cities, we require much more. You need to become somebody, learn to present yourself, make conversations, focus, understand and participate in complex systems. The work we do has become more complex as well, and we do not necessarily do work that has a direct outcome. Office work or work for big corporations requires social skills, an ability to focus, and urban survival tactics as much as it requires effort. For some people it’s great. For some people, like Rus, it’s a prison.

We do get a lot in return for our modern city lives obviously: safety, comfort, health. But two of the basic things—your own shelter and a connection to a community—may have become harder to come by, perhaps.

I did not want to write a novel to express my views on this, or to argue something. It was just something I tried to understand, and when I try to understand something I create stories, that is the way I can think clearly about things. When I wrote Rus’s story, I was curious what would happen to him and where he would end up. There are currents in our lives, depending on who you are and where you grow up, that want to take you somewhere. I was curious where someone like Rus, if he did not resist the current, would end up.

I’d like to talk about colors some. I was really struck by how often primary colors come up in this book. A lot of novelists tend to get at color by analogy: “It was the color of rust” or something is described as blood-red or whatever. You tend to go directly with “red,” “blue,” “yellow,” etc., without analogies or qualifiers, and I was curious why.

Yes! Readers have been pointing out to me the abundant presence of colors in the novel. I was not aware that it stood out like that (except for the story of the secretary of course, when she stops seeing colors). The reason I do not specify the nuances in the colors has to do with my preference for simple language. I think comparing a red to rust for instance, is not helpful at all, because rust has so many shades, and who knows what the lighting is like, etc. I want to appeal to the reader’s imagination, and ideally the creation of the story in the reader’s head would be an equal collaboration between what I put in there and what’s already in there. So if am not writing about anything exotic or new, I’d rather appeal to the storage of images in the reader’s head than describe exactly what it looks like in my head. They know what a blue sea looks like to them, or a green dress. They can pick any shade of blue for Mrs. Blue’s eye shadow, or any kind of yellow for the sun. This, hopefully, gives me a way to let the story seep into the reader’s daily life, in the same way the reader makes his or her way into the daily lives of the characters in this book.

I like the idea that color analogies aren’t helpful—in many cases, I suspect they’re mostly a way for a writer to sneak in a metaphor or other commentary, rather than portraying the thing itself. Certainly I was struck by the directness of your language throughout Rus—it was one of the things that really appealed to me about the novel.

The secretary who loses her ability to see colors—I’d expect that to be a tragic moment, but instead it seems to mark the beginning of her taking control over her life.

The secretary is waiting for things to happen, but in reality things are falling away from her. The disappearance of the colors makes her realize she has nothing to lose.  I had a period before writing this book when I felt a bit hopeless about the state of the world and I talked and thought about it a lot. It seemed to me at that time that everything around me became more grey. The sky, the sun, people’s faces. Not figuratively, but literally. I read somewhere once that when people are depressed, colors become less bright to them. Colors are one of the things that make the world fabulous. It you lose them, you might as well make a radical change in your life, which the secretary does eventually when she goes to the office, hides in the copy room and waits until everyone has gone. . . . (This is meant as a cliffhanger.)

How do you think your use of colors in the novel is influenced by your work as a visual artist? I noticed a lot of vibrant primary colors in your paintings, as well.

I have always been very focused on colors. If a yellow creeps in through the window or if the sky turns dark blue late at night I will be distracted from a conversation I’m having. This has influenced my visual art, or might even be the reason I am a visual artist. I think colors are closest you can get to describing deep abstract feelings. Making drawings has made me more attentive of exactly how a color fades or of the direction of a line, for instance.

In Rus Like Everyone Else, the characters are caught up in man-made systems and situations, and some of them think a lot about who they are, what they should accomplish, and what their relation is to others. We can get caught up in these stories we tell ourselves. To me, the senses are a kind of antidote to the mind. Looking at the colors, listening to sounds, feeling the wind on your skin.

You also mentioned that originally there were illustrations for this novel—why did you ultimately decide against them?

When I was writing Rus, I also made drawings that I thought were going to be part of the book. I did not draw the characters or the things they did, but things the characters saw or thought about: views of the city, or cells in a plant. I made the drawings on layers of see-through paper, because I had this sense that the book would be about peeling away all the different layers that compose a life: our memories, our ideas about the future and our experience of the present, the dreams and the nightmares, the sights and the sounds, the functioning of body, the systems and institutions we are part of, the relationships we have. In the end, the drawings weren’t essential to the story. The people in publishing I spoke to made it clear that printing colored pages would be very expensive and I would have to find a graphic novel publisher or make it an art book. Since the drawings became less and less important, I left them out.

How was the tour? Any particular highlights or stories? What was the best thing you saw?

The tour was pretty incredible. The contrast to my daily life as a writer and artist was funny. I spend most of my days alone at a desk working on a book or sitting on the floor of the studio working on a drawing, maybe taking a trip to the supermarket. Nobody is very interested in what I am doing. The book tour covered nine cities in twenty days. Every day seemed to have a hundred times more events than a normal day in my life.

The very best thing about it was to meet people in people in these different cities who have read my book and somehow connect to it. It’s been wonderful and touching to find out I have something in common with Bill in Iowa or Janet in Chicago.

When I was eighteen, I first read a book called The Light by Torgny Lindgren, and I felt I understood completely what the writer meant. I remember looking at his photo and thinking how funny it was that this man in Sweden and I had something, some way of looking at things, in common.

Through stories and art, you can communicate ideas and feelings to someone in a way you might never be able to do in a conversation.

JAMES TADD ADCOX is the author of the novel Does Not Love (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and a collection of short fiction, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2012). His short story, “A/B,” appears in MAKE #16. He lives in Chicago.

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