In A Philosophy of Ruin, the debut novel by Nicholas Mancusi, a philosophy professor questions his choices, what life is about, and reevaluates his own outlook on philosophy. The professor, named Oscar, is experiencing one of the roughest patches in his life. To add to everything, he is seduced by a student who gets him caught up in a drug ring that begins to upend everything he has worked for.
The book offers up existential questions, but never gets bogged down in its own way. Mancusi touches on tough subjects, but the speed of his prose makes it feel urgent. There never seemed to be a dull moment, even when the main character becomes internally reflective.
Below, Nicholas Mancusi answered Debutiful‘s “A Life of Books” questionnaire.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
The first book I remember staying up late to read with a flashlight under the covers in third grade was Martin the Warrior by Brian Jacques, which is from the Redwall series. Let’s see, what else…my grandmother reading me The Hobbit aloud, my mother reading me Rikki-Tiki-Tavi, poring over books of Stephen Biesty cross-sections with my dad. I distinctly remember being totally incredulous that Stuart Little could end in the unresolved way that it did, with Stuart setting out alone after his friend. Later, in middle school, I was a big Stephen King guy, books like It, The Stand, and the Dark Tower series in particular. I have a memory of faking an illness to stay home from school and finish reading It.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
You mean the naughty stuff? I absolutely would encourage it, of course, and have. I think a great way to get kids into reading is the idea that you can get away with reading things that you probably wouldn’t be allowed to watch on TV. I remember reading Nelson Demille’s Plum Island as a kid, and part of the thrill was knowing that it was written for people older than me, that I was getting a contraband glimpse into the lives of adults.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
Oh man, sorry to be such a nerd, but to be honest I’m having trouble remembering hating an assigned book! I’m sure that if I didn’t like it, I just wouldn’t read it, and then fake my way through the conversation and paper or whatever. I have not yet tried to rehabilitate any of those books in my life, but perhaps it’s time I try.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
I’ve made a distinct effort not to return to books that I loved in my formative years. You remember it as being so brilliant, then you open to a random page and see a bunch of adverbs or bad dialogue or other silliness…best to leave them undisturbed in the pantheon of memory.
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
I found the novels of poets, writers like Charlie Smith, Forrest Gander, and even Denis Johnson (who was a poet first so I include him on this list) to be instructive and inspiring. Joy Williams too, Jenny Offill. Their books tend to be slim, with no wasted air in either plotting or language, and I tried to emulate that. I also think that it’s important for fiction writers to read non-fiction, so I made sure to mix that in, big histories of the Roman Empire or the battle of Hue, stuff like that. It might not be obvious at first but I think it seeps into the work in various ways, in an understanding of time and progression of human endeavor, the inescapability of certain follies. There’s even a way to read wikipedia with this end in mind, and I’ve certainly done my fair share of that.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
Oh gosh, so many. I think on a certain level, every published book I’ve ever read has inspired either the response “I wish I had done that” or “I could do better than that.” I’m sure that’s a subconscious motivating factor. But eventually you realize that you can really only write your own book, that other books come from other brains and sets of experiences that no amount of effort on your part could replicate. That kind of envy is wasted energy. Better to take a deep breath and keep your eyes on your own paper. (I think you’ve got me thinking like I’m back in school now.)
What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
I’ll probably pack up my comfort foods: Denis Johnson, the little Schopenhaur book that I bring everywhere just for fun, the latest issue of Bookforum, maybe a big nonfiction to help get to sleep. The rest I will scavenge for on the road. That’s one nice thing about visiting all theses different bookstores in different cities, I’m sure my bag will fill up quick.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
Ask again later!
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3 thoughts on “A Life of Books with Nicholas Mancusi, author of ‘A Philosophy of Ruin’”
Read Nicholas Mancusi’s Time review of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” and wanted to Google him immediately. Hard to say exactly why, but these are the sentences that most intrigued me:
“His first works of fiction to be published in 16 years begin in familiar territory but push his ambitions to the very boundaries of human understanding, where math and science are still just theory.”
“From the initial mystery of a missing person, the novel explodes outward like an atomic chain reaction to the very face of God, at the intersection of mathematics and faith.”
“So it makes sense that at this stage in his career, the author would push in his chips and attempt to understand the mechanical clockwork of reality itself. Like Bach’s concertos, these triumphant novels depart the realm of art and encroach upon science, aimed at some Platonic point beyond our reckoning where all spheres converge.”
“It’s a rare thing to see a writer employ the tools of fiction in order to make a genuine contribution to what we know, and what we can know, about material existence.”
Bravo, Mr. Mancusi. I’d like to know if you’ve ever read Peter Kingsley. Also, I just ordered both of McCarthy’s latest books. And I thank you.