As Matthew Stadler knows, it's not especially easy to publish a novel titled The Sex Offender while teaching in a public high school. His book, an operatic, semi-surreal account of an ex-teacher undergoing sexual-revulsion therapy after sleeping with one of his students, hit the shelves in 1994, and though Stadler's colleagues and students at Seattle's Nathan Hale High "had no problem with it," he soon started receiving hate mail of the "we know where you live" variety. Then came a hostile Seattle Times review, which, in addition to demolishing the division between author and narrator, proclaimed that Stadler was completely unaware of the wounds suffered by adolescent victims of sexual abuse. "Freaked out," he quit his job when administrators began to fret that they would sacrifice funding if they defended his work.
The conflict between Stadler's roles as teacher and novelist mimics a tension he explores relentlessly in his fiction, the blurry line between life and fantasy. All of his novels grapple with what he says is "the internal landscape of mythologies of children, the instability of memory, and the battle between the imagination and reality." If Stadler's characters can't always distinguish their fantasies from what's actually happening around them, that's in many ways a testament to his sly and seductive writing style, a gift that has not gone unnoticed. He's been showered with prizes, including an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Award and the Whiting Writers Award in 1995. His latest novel, Allan Stein, just out from Grove/Atlantic, depicts an ex-teacher who pursues Picasso drawings of Gertrude Stein's long-dead nephew -- and becomes obsessed with a living teenager in Paris. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Edmund White observed that the book places Stadler "among the handful of first-rate young American novelists, one with a wide reach and a quirky, elegant pen."
Yet the praise has been offset by hostility, primarily because Stadler refuses to assume a moral stance on powerful and troubling topics, such as the psychosexual tensions between teachers and students. "With Sex Offender, the reviews I saw often criticized the book for defending pedophilia, or praised it for defending pedophilia," he says. "But I didn't write the book to make a defense of anything."
In New York City to read from Allan Stein, the 40-year-old Stadler sips red wine in the offices of an interior-design magazine called Nest, where he acts as literary editor. Dressed in a faded flannel shirt and khakis, Stadler stands in visual challenge to the rest of the room, with its blue leather chairs, a coffee table shaped like spilled liquid, busy tapestries, yellow ceilings and blue walls covered with black geometric shapes. Amid the aggressive decor Stadler radiates the avuncular vibe of gentle mentor. It's no surprise. All of Stadler's novels have featured teachers, and his résumé includes stints at the Upper West Side's Anglo-American International School, Seattle's Shorecrest High and the all-male, California desert college Deep Springs, where he taught modernism. Though not affiliated with any schools at the moment, he continues to coordinate readings and discussions at Seattle's Richard Hugo House, a mortuary turned literary arts center that he helped establish, and teaches writing to "a mix of kids, oldsters, and odd adults including scientists, strippers and secretaries" at his apartment.
Teaching is an outgrowth of Stadler's lifelong involvement in political causes. The son of left-leaning parents who ran an anti-war organization in the '60s, he volunteered for a Quaker organization in Washington, D.C., before attending Oberlin College. He arrived in New York in the early '80s to play in a punk band called Food. After a couple of years, Stadler's commitment to New York politics and music began to wane. He started to write fiction, and entered Columbia's MFA program in 1985.
At Columbia, Stadler wrote his first novel, Landscape: Memory. Set in 1914 and 1915 San Francisco, it poses as the "memory book" of 16-year-old Maxwell Kosegarten, who speculates on the fluidity of memory and chronicles his love affair with his best friend, Duncan. Scribner's published the book in 1990, and almost immediately placed Stadler under contract for his book-in-progress, The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee, a dark, satirical mystery about a scholar's attempts to write a "History of Insurance" and his subordination to a dwarf named Amelia.
Stadler seemed set for a strong literary career. But before he submitted his second novel, he turned to a subject that triggered extreme resistance from publishers. In 1990, Stadler put Nicholas Dee aside to write a draft of The Sex Offender. Washington State was busy making laws meant to protect the community from predatory sex offenders. Stadler was struck that the therapies meant to cure offenders -- treatments that gauged responses to pornography -- oddly mimicked the behavior they were supposed to eradicate. The Sex Offender satirizes these rehabilitation methods, portraying them in bizarre and sometimes hilarious detail. "Unlike my other books, it's a pretty reactionary, political gesture," he says. The manuscript was met with cold stares at Scribner's. According to Stadler, his editor, Robert Stewart, said, "We want to publish your next book, we just don't want it to be this."
When Stadler finished Nicholas Dee in 1993, Scribner's, which had just merged with Simon &Schuster, was in the middle of a chaotic revamp. "They were actually being dismantled as they published the book," Stadler recalls, "and the hardcover edition is not my last draft -- there were so many staff changes no one could keep track of what was where, and they published an earlier draft that's not only riddled with typographical errors and inaccuracies but also very different from the final version I had given them. It was horrifying."
Stadler landed on his feet-temporarily, at least. His agent, Gloria Loomis, sold The Sex Offender to HarperCollins's Robert Jones. Soon after, HarperCollins gave Stadler a contract for Allan Stein. The book was listed in the HarperCollins catalogue, but shortly after Stadler turned in the manuscript, "I got this bizarre letter through Gloria, which basically said, `We're shocked to see that the book dwells primarily on issues of sexuality and not the story of Allan Stein,' and that they would like to pay me off and send me on my way."
At the time, Stadler didn't realize that he was one of roughly 100 authors that HarperCollins purged from its list in 1997 as a dramatic cost-cutting measure authorized by its new chief executive, Anthea Disney. But the turn of events has proven advantageous. Ira Silverberg, then editor-in-chief at Grove, subsequently bought the novel. "Grove has been like this weird drug experience -- I go down there and everyone's read my book," Stadler says. "Basically, I've really benefited from that whole switcheroo."
An Elusive Muse
Stadler has always been "obsessive about research," and for his new novel, he mined biographies and museums for vestiges of a figure on the outer margins of literary history. Allan turned out to be more than a portal into the life of his Aunt Gertrude. He also brought together the themes of Stadler's previous books. "Allan was a kid surrounded by powerful adults, and my work has always focused on kids living in the midst of adult projections."
The novel weaves biographical sketches of the Stein circle into the larger, more recent story of an adult and his own self-serving fantasies about adolescents. The real name of the narrator, a vulpine and mildly sociopathic man, remains a mystery until the novel's final pages, and its revelation is a charged one. The novel turns on the narrator's impersonation of his friend and next-door neighbor Herbert Widener, a curator at a local museum. Becoming Herbert supposedly gives the narrator the art-world credentials he needs in Paris to find Picasso drawings that will prove Allan Stein was the model for Picasso's famous Boy Leading a Horse. But the real reason for the jaunt is less clear. Caught up in a scandal in his unnamed Northwestern hometown, the narrator might be in over his head and in need of an escape.
Amid suspicions that he has molested a student, he is temporarily dismissed from his teaching job and then uses his free time to seduce the boy. When Herbert mentions the Picasso project, the narrator convinces his friend that he should go to France in his stead. But there's a distraction living in the house where he stays, a 15-year-old named Stéphane. The narrator carries out his research with hilarious ineptitude: he shows up at Allan's old school wearing Stéphane's sweaty T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a heavy metal band. Worried that Stéphane's parents know more about Gertrude than he d s, he rummages through their bedroom for books, and then flops around on their bed.
Near the end, the narrator takes Stéphane on a research trip to Agay, a town where the Steins spent many summers. The book, told in retrospect, begins with a fantasy that the bond between the narrator and Stéphane survives well into the journey; at the end, we learn that it actually d sn't.
Stadler feels his fiction d sn't idealize sexual desire for children so much as explore the complexities he finds in those fantasies. "I'm creating a safe territory for engaging our empathetic imagination, a resource sorely missing in discourse about sex and kids," he claims. It's a topic that's become more widespread recently, cropping up in A.M. Homes's The End of Alice, Todd Solondz's film Happiness, and even the prime-time TV show Dawson's Creek.
Nonetheless, the romantic sensibilities Stadler invokes make his novels particularly difficult. "The relations my fictions explore occur inside fairly mainstream conventions of consent and love. They happen there because that's the most troubling ground for me -- that's where I find complexity and confusion and an enormous amount of duplicity."
With Allan Stein, Stadler has taken a closer look at his own position in these fantasies. In the final chapter, Stéphane's mother, who has uncovered the narrator's charade, sends him a letter -- it begins, "Dear Matthew." Though Stadler's narrator is fictional, he claims that the use of his own name left him "overwhelmed emotionally. I recognized that my inability to arrive at a right relation to these fantasies came from how nervous, hesitant, and defensive I felt about my presence as a writer of this. To have a character address me directly was very chastening."
This self-reckoning, he says, helped him exhaust his fascination with kids. "I had been working for four books around this question, trying to achieve some kind of relation to the image of the boy. Allan brought together so many strands of my work, I thought maybe I could neutron bomb the whole boy-mythology construct by somehow exhausting the territory of my fantasy."
Since finishing Allan Stein, his fiction has taken a new direction. Currently, he is working on a book set in Seattle and a depressed logging town also in Washington State. Stadler, who has lived in Seattle since 1990, sees the novel as a way "to understand where I live and came from."
He is making a change in his real life, too -- he's decided to become a father. The mother, a friend, is due to give birth in June. They have opted to leave the boy/girl question unanswered until then. "We have a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy -- it's probably the last privacy the child will ever have," he jokes. Though he imagines himself as the kind of father who will occasionally disappear into his fiction, he plans "to be around all the time," and looks forward to spending time with friends who have recently become parents. "It's going to be great going to PTA meetings," he gleefully remarks. "And it will be really fun during interviews about my work to say, 'As a father...' "