Talking with Kathleen Alcott about Infinite Home and the Pursuit of Utopian Ideals

Photo by Maggie Shannon

Infinite Home, the second novel by Brooklyn writer Kathleen Alcott, has a modest set-up, following the interconnected lives of one Brooklyn brownstone’s tenants at a crucial point in their histories and the building’s history. Yet what Alcott does with her small community is nothing short of magic. Through short scenes, written with an exacting care and beauty, she creates characters that are so well realized that by the novel’s end, it’s easy to mistake these lost souls for friends, for people that we meet during our everyday constitutionals in the city.

In fact, embarrassingly enough, when I met Alcott at her Park Slope brownstone for an interview, I blurted out a dumb question, wondering if she knew a young woman in Brooklyn who had a lot in common with a character in Infinite Home, Adeleine, a beautiful, delicate agoraphobic young woman. She didn’t know her, of course—she’s just a talented writer—but the fact that I was convinced that, naturally, this character was obviously based on my friend speaks to Alcott’s gift as a storyteller and the book’s seductive charm.

The book was sparked by Alcott’s initial move to Brooklyn, where the home occupies a wildly different space than anyplace else in the country, especially in the wilds of her native California. “It’s just a stop in a person’s day,” she said. “We were meant to be really resilient and not need anything but the bags on our shoulders. I wanted to imagine how some hapless people who didn’t have that resilience or those inner and external resources would deal.” In this book, it means dealing with their home—the brownstone—and how time changes it and gives it weight.

Infinite Home is character driven, and through a close third person narration, we meet Edith, the elderly landlord; Paulie, a young man with Williams Syndrome; the aforementioned Adeleine; dissolute stand-up comedian Edward; and the young artist Thomas. Alcott described her choice for the narrative voice as the best one for this book, which has “a great many people whose mental facilities are a little different. It allows for the greatest sense of control, and control is the first and last thing that we have as writers.”

Control also plays a part in how Alcott works on her sentences, and they’re stunning—able to explain a character’s life in a finely wrought collection of words. Take this example, about Edward the comedian: “He couldn’t explain it except to say that it had simply ceased, burned off life an atmospheric layer — ‘it’ being whatever had lived in him that had drawn punch lines from human behavior, that had identified the rhythm stitched between silence and speech, between precipitation and execution.” There’s an exquisite precision to the way that Alcott approaches her writing, as she explained: “I pay a lot of attention to the fine elements. I’m very careful about the repetition of words, I’m careful about syllabic value, and that the syllabic value on either side of a sentence–or in a multi-clause sentence–is balanced. I definitely emphasize reading aloud. If a sentence can’t exist in that way or doesn’t exist in a clean way, there’s something wrong with it.”

For Alcott, the character of Paulie and his life with Williams Syndrome–a rare genetic condition where medical problems like developmental delays and cardiovascular problems, come along with verbal abilities and musical affinity–required the most research. “It’s so delicate to work around a condition that’s so specific and whose limitations are so singular.” She read articles and scientific journals discussing Williams Syndrome, until she understood it enough to speak to a family through a foundation dedicated to the condition. Yet despite her experience with this family, Paulie’s life in the book stayed “pinned down,” as she put it. “It’s this tricky balancing act where you want to translate the emotional veracity of someone’s experience but you don’t want their life to end up in a book,” she said.

Alcott is twenty-six and Infinite Home is her second novel, after her debut, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets (Other Press, 2012). Alphabets is another book asking the question what makes a home, with a love story and sleepwalking at the center, and Alcott described it as a book that dealt “with themes long meditated on.” She elaborated, “I was raised in this non-conventional way, in which I was slipping in and out of various family models, considering people who weren’t my family my family, and living in what were basically communes.”

She’s lived in Brooklyn since 2011, and she said that northern California, “really haunts me. I’ll always think about it on some level and I think I always long to return to it but I never will.” To hear it described, writing and storytelling has been a part of her life since she was a child. “My parents were newspaper reporters and they were insistent on my learning about narrative. My father would make me memorize words out of the dictionary, and we would tell stories in the round. I wasn’t necessarily being told stories by them, I was asked to co-create [these stories]. I grew up going to their newspapers and sitting at their feet while they typed.”

California does end up playing a role in Infinite Home, as some of the characters find themselves in an otherworldly place. Some readers may call it a commune or a cult, but it’s really up to interpretation. But Alcott has a beautiful perspective on why people pursue utopian ideals in California. “What makes people call it something a cult is that it isn’t attached to an ancient tradition. California is the place where tradition isn’t required. Any rituals can be invented and treated with reverence in a lasting way or not.” But there’s a downside to this idealism. “I always found that to be beautiful and sad in that California is where many ideas are born and die. People end up attaching themselves to these ideas. What happens when those ideas have withered?”

Elisabeth Donnelly is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. Sometimes she moonlights as one half of Alex Flynn, the author of the children’s superhero series The Misshapes. Misshapes 2: Annihilation Day is coming in October 2015.

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