Eugene Lim will not choose between superheroes and soliloquies. His new novel, Dear Cyborgs, shifts between quick bursts of pulpy action and long philosophical monologues. Characters kidnap, shoot, and poison one other, then weigh the merits of protest and relay brushes with gentrification. Capitalism looms over the book like one of Marvel’s Sentinels -- inescapable, maybe indestructible. Low art sits next to high, smudging the hierarchy. The term “thoughtful dystopian romp” comes to mind. The year or universe is hazy, but we can make out some of our less fine hours, our targeted ads. Two worlds slide together and a third comes into focus. Is this how people write in the future? Lim and I exchanged emails about the value of protest, the act of reading as resistance, and the death and rebirth of the novel. The Millions: Do you consider Dear Cyborgs a piece of protest art, or rather a means of “unveiling life” (as advocated by Tehching Hsieh)? Eugene Lim: I half-quote a piece of self-admonition associated with Antonio Gramsci on the first page of my book: “Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” For me, this captures a pretty common contemporary state of cognitive dissonance. So I'm not sure if the book is an act of protest as much as it's an attempt to articulate this emotional state as well as look into what it’s like to try to constantly maintain it and what it’s like to live within its turmoil. There’s a directive made by the left that hopelessness and despair are to be avoided as they are emotions of some luxury. And furthermore, it’s bad for morale, so if one were to actually speak and so spread one’s despair, well, then the masses won’t come out, the public won’t march in the streets, and people will just give up. I think there’s a great deal of practical wisdom in this line of thought. (Here’s an even better articulation, by Pablo Iglesias of Podemos, of the near-null practical value of despair as well as that of t-shirt Marxism -- and furthermore a definition of politics as necessary and terrible.) However, one can’t observe the ongoing situation and, on one level, not allow the stirrings of despair and hopelessness. To deny these emotions in the face of war crime, violent structural racism, climate destruction, etc. is to be intellectually dishonest. And we all live with this schizophrenia (a parallel one to our moment of apocalypse-always and simultaneous techno-futurist utopia), which is so pervasive that we barely allow ourselves to acknowledge it. TM: Is protesting an effective way to bring about change in 2017? Or does it just allow the individual protestor to “make a moral world in which she can abide” (a line from your book)? EL: I don’t know. I think mass movements and demonstrations have been very important. Historically it’s very important for people simply to show up. Take the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, or the first Earth Day gathering in 1970. Nixon saw the crowd and supposedly said something like, “Some of those people are Republicans,” and went on to pass major environmental legislation. Or you could look at the large flash protests at JFK and other airports after the announcement of SCROTUS’s Muslim ban. The counterexample cited in the book is the February 15th, 2003, worldwide day of marches to protest the US invasion of Iraq. Some call it the largest protest in human history,* but the Bush administration was undeterred. Other cynical counterexamples could include every Earth Day march of the past decade. Reductively, but not entirely inaccurately, one can argue that the state has learned that if a clear majority of public opinion runs counter to its will and the synonymous will of its corporate masters, the state can ignore this majority because it can manipulate elections and regulations so as to remain in power. And yet and yet… protests can and do matter. The Black Lives Matter movement is a key example. Another: the ruling for same-sex marriage as recent fodder for the argument that history “bends toward justice.” Importantly, you don’t know how this is going to happen. Chomsky says that prior to Occupy Wall Street, if you were to ask him if taking over some downtown street block would make a big difference, he would have said of course not. But OWS crystallized, framed, and popularized an analysis of class inequality that is still resonating today. Who knows which act will become significant, so arguments about effectiveness are riddled with uncertainty -- still one has to act. But how? It’s a question less answerable with a prescriptive response than with the spirit and unpredictability of art, of some flash of insight or opening. TM: A piece of graffiti in Dear Cyborgs reads, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Is it easier for you? If so, why? EL: That was a memorable line I’d chanced upon and which I remembered because it seemed to state the issue rather perfectly. It’s an unattributed quote found in an essay by Fredric Jameson (though others have identified its source, and a certain slovenly Slovenian I believe retweeted it). In our season, where bestseller lists and blockbusters seem to be monopolized by competing visions of dystopia and apocalypse -- but where the idea of successful collective action to combat the destruction of our planet by Big Oil remains impossible -- it would seem to me a line of some persuasive accuracy. Why is this so? Probably someone with more relevant experience than a novelist should be asked, but I’ll venture that capitalism is a very very successful cancer because it’s extremely hard to not want to keep up with the Joneses. TM: Hua Hsu writes that you have “an uncanny sense of what it’s like to be alive right now: constantly distracted, bounding between idealism and cynicism, ever conscious of the fact that we may never bring the size and complexity of our world into focus.” Do you consider this a fair characterization of what it’s like to be alive in 2017? Is this what you were going for in the book? EL: I think Hsu’s description is a fair characterization of our times. Perpetual distraction and multitasking seem absolutely the norm, the result of the information overload and the fast-paced, shifting landscape of the attention economy. And the simultaneous intellectual cynicism/pessimism and willful idealism/optimism comes from a desire to rebel against complicity only to have ourselves discover our very existence encoded with it. But that diagnosis is not exactly news. One thing I would like to do -- and perhaps Dear Cyborgs does a little of this -- is to approach the novel without the locus of character as its main technology. I’d like to describe the chaotic matrix in which we’re living through some other narrative device, some new way that supersedes our dependence on character as empathy avatar and our traditional use of plot as an arc about conflict resolution, and furthermore a method that accounts for the intense mind-boggling complexity we live in that somehow must be apprehended by our puny individual minds. In Dear Cyborgs, the method I tried was a kind of monologue-fractal, which is why all the characters in the book may seem empty or unrealistic, and yet their speeches seem familiar and hopefully poignant and/or meaningful. It would be odd -- in this singularity-approaching data-flooded contemporary world, one where wild algorithmic financial transactions create hidden transnational empires and where we daily use machines the majority of us have no idea how and why they really work -- for this almost vestigial not to mention necessarily linear art form, the novel, to be the one best suited to manifest, depict, and perform our world. But maybe it’s so. TM: How and why did you decide to end the book with these words: “…mourned and was chased and chased and fought and mourned and mourned and mourned and mourned”? EL: I’d rather let others speculate on the meaning of the book’s ending, but I will say something about the several kinds of grieving that are undercurrents to the book and which, on a personal level, I feel are entwined. Perhaps the primary one is the historic loss, from one point of view, of even the possibility of effective protest. Or at least the loss of protest as it once was framed and done. This is a kind of loss of innocence. Then, in terms of cyborg culture, there’s also this weird grief of going through a very particular inflection point, i.e., I’m from the last generation that grew up without the internet. This makes for a rather epic middle-aged feeling of loss, which is a bit aggrandizing because my generation’s loss of youth was simultaneous with this huge cultural shift. In addition, there is another loss that only a few may feel but which nonetheless is very intense, that is: the ongoing eroding of deep reading and the loss of the novel’s supremacy in culture. However, I believe -- and in some ways have tried to show -- that the meditative act of reading is a kind of resistance to a persistent and insidious dissolving of agency and our alienation by the forces of capitalism. Also, finally, I have tried to show that if the old narrative ideas of a Freytag plot path of redemption or self-discovery or epiphany are stale, at least there may be other possibilities. That is: the novel is dead; long live the novel.
1. Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table… Teddy Wayne is drawn to loners. His debut novel, Kapitoil, chronicled a brilliant young immigrant’s attempts to penetrate the lingual and interpersonal density of New York’s Financial District. Wayne’s next book, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, followed an 11-year-old pop star on tour as his manager/mom slipped him pills and arranged publicity-driven “dates” with other fun-sized celebs. Each narrator failed (for the most part) to burst through his respective bubble and connect with others. Each book pulled double duty as amusing character study and troubling social commentary. Which brings us to Loner (Simon & Schuster), Wayne’s latest first person, voice-driven, cautionary tale of societal ill. Like Love Song, the specter of J. Alfred Prufrock looms over this story -- but this time Prufrock heralds more doom than gloom. Harvard freshman David Alan Federman seems harmless enough at first, flipping words around in his head (e.g., David becomes Divad) and flopping conversationally. He bemoans his “blandly all-purpose name” and his no-purpose body -- “a rectangular vacuum of charisma.” He checks his jacket for pee because he was bullied as a kid, which affords him some sympathy. David’s voice is off-putting (“quite a fancy prose style,” says a teacher; “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse,” says T.S. Eliot), but in the early going his quirks seem like comic relief. His fashion sense comes to mind: Earlier that week my mother had dragged me to the mall, where I’d decided to adhere, for now, to my usual sartorial neutrality of innocuous colors and materials. It would socially serve me these first few weeks to look as benign as possible, the type of person who could be friends with anyone. (Or no one.) David just seems like a lowly nerd with an inflated sense of academic and romantic prowess, which he may have inherited from his mother. Her advice on move-in day? Just be yourself. “You can’t go wrong being yourself,” she says, like a guidance counselor telling a student he can’t go wrong becoming a bathroom attendant, or a coach telling Andre Drummond he can’t go wrong getting to the free throw line. 2. There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create… Mrs. Federman’s naivete will prove bottomless, plummeting alongside David’s depravity. A beautiful classmate reveals David’s true colors, and they are far from innocuous. Veronica Morgan Wells is a wealthy pill-popping fox with a chip on her shoulder. David and other men fight and drool over her as if she’s prey: a thing to catch, possess, devour. His feelings for Veronica ferment overnight into a toxic obsession that drives the book, crushing any remaining hope that Loner will be a dramedy, or that David will redeem himself. David Facestalks, he shadows Veronica around campus, he enrolls in her Prufrock class. He starts seeing Veronica’s roommate, Sara, only for her proximity to his prize. (Which stings even more given how real Sara feels as a character, and the many small ways she endears herself to the reader.) He piles lies on top of lies and commits academic fraud. He imagines Sara is Veronica while fooling around with the former. Later, “unbidden,” he pictures pushing Sara into oncoming traffic. At which point I wrote in my notes, “Is he going to MURDER HER?” (I meant Veronica, but Sara wouldn’t have surprised.) David is in fact a psychopath, as made plain in his breakup with Sara, which lands a little too squarely on the nose: “No,” she said stoically. “You don’t care about me. I don’t think you’re capable of caring about anyone besides yourself.” “I’m not sure where you’re getting that,” I said. “You’re missing whatever it is that makes you feel things for other people,” Sara said. If that’s not confirmation enough: David also gets off on making girls cry. When Sara weeps, he rises. Not sure that’s how psychopathy works (I’m sure it’s how something works, for someone), but it is an effective way to peck away at those last few bits of sympathy for the narrator. 3. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me… Like Seung-Hui Cho, Dylan Klebold, and Eric Harris, David Alan Federman is a victim of bullying with a disdain for jocks. (He describes a pair of baseball players as “entitled athletes who chased openmouthed after fly balls like Labrador retrievers.”) And like that axis of evildoers, he deeply resents his anonymity. Perhaps even more than he wants to capture Veronica and inhabit her world, David wants to be known. (At one point he whimpers, “A fictional character had left more of a mark on this place than I ever would.” He means Harvard, but could just as easily mean Earth.) It’s hard to separate David’s twin desires because a large part of Veronica’s allure for him is that, if they dated, she would pull him into her apex orbit: My parents made good salaries practicing law, but didn’t come close to the assets of your families, where a crack about tuition and parking would never even come to mind, let alone be verbalized...You had traveled widely, dined at Michelin-starred restaurants without parental supervision, matriculated at schools with single-name national reputations, ingested designer drugs and maybe had a cushy stint in rehab. But it wasn’t just your financial capital that set you apart; it was your worldliness, your taste, your social capital. What my respectable, professional parents had deprived me of by their conventional ambitions and absence of imagination. David wants Veronica for all the wrong reasons, and we know he will never have her. The only question is how exactly -- and how terribly -- he will exact his revenge. The title, Loner, suggests a killer’s profile: “Kept to himself,” “He was always really quiet,” etc. David doesn’t own a gun or don a trench coat, but as the story morphs into a page-turner, the reader senses a deadly trajectory. But [spoiler alert] red herrings abound. For all the talk of murdering poor Sara (it’s a running joke) -- and all Wayne’s sprinkled hints that David has written this 200-page letter pre-suicide, post-massacre, and/or behind bars (“A lifetime on the inside of a jail cell flashed before my eyes. (Ha.)”) --- there won’t be blood. David is not Seung-Hui Cho, or Dylan Klebold, or Eric Harris (or at least, he’s not only them). A more apt parallel is Brock Turner. 4. Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis? Loner is not about bullying’s bloody aftermath, or how Mental Health Services can do more to thwart shootings on school campuses. It’s about men -- in particular, white men of privilege -- feeling entitled to women’s bodies, and how that is heinous and psychopathic, and how these particular men are immune to remorse and repercussion. David Federman does not kill anyone, but (on separate occasions) he rapes Sara and tries to rape Veronica. From his warped perspective, these women have teased and manipulated him, and he will reap what he is “owed.” Sara is too drunk to fight back, and Veronica’s struggles only power David’s conviction, “my legs doubling in size, my body lengthening and massing as you shrank in direct proportion under me. But this is how you wanted me to act all along, isn’t it.” The implication is clear: You’re saying no, but you mean yes. You want me to take this. You’ve wanted this all along. (A year after Kobe Bryant’s accuser dropped the rape charges against him, Bryant penned an apology: “I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way...I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.” Please read and consider “The Legacy of the Kobe Bryant Rape Case.”) As the police cuff him and stuff him into the back of a squad car, David basks in his newfound infamy while the “cinematic montage of [his] future” unspools before him: ...A British tabloid would give me the libelous sobriquet “the Harvard Rapist”; the Parisian press would speculate about a ménage a trois gone wrong. The frozen, lopsided smile from my Freshman Register photo would fuel their fascination. The white male with whom everyone would become obsessed. I would listen, deadpan, as the foreman read the jury’s decision in my televised trial for attempted rape. A verdict of guilty for the Harvard Rapist, David Alan Federman. Famous David. But -- as with the real-life cases of Brock Turner (the Stanford Rapist) and 18-year-old David Becker—justice is not forthcoming. David’s parents are attorneys, after all, and he’s a man of privilege. His lawyer says Veronica consented, and there is little physical evidence to dispute him. If the case goes to trial, Veronica’s name will leak and the media will pounce, shredding her character (as they did Bryant’s victim’s, among others’). David pleads to a lesser offense, agrees to stay away from Veronica for five years, and gets off scot-free. 5. I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas... By establishing David as a psychopath and giving him the markings of a killer, Teddy Wayne elevates (or lowers) the crime of rape to murder’s level. By the end, David’s actions seem no less dreadful for their lack of fatality. In the case of Brock Turner, both the judge and Turner’s father painted the accused as a normal college kid who simply got carried away after one too many beers -- the Boys Will Be Boys defense. Dan Turner despicably called his son’s six-month sentence “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” Judge Aaron Perksy, who attended Stanford, claimed a prison sentence “would have a severe impact” on the guilty party (which is kind of the point?) and said, “I think he will not be a danger to others.” In his apology to the victim and the Court, Turner himself blamed peer pressure and binge-drinking, stating, “I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school.” He’s been shattered? That is not remorse. That is not empathy. That is the apology of a psychopath -- someone who very much will be a danger to others. (A wisp of a silver lining: Judge Persky no longer hears criminal cases, and a petition to impeach him has amassed 1.3 million signatures.) Loner highlights the outsize influence of class on justice, but it’s also a chilling commentary on gender politics. Veronica (who is from an even higher class than David) can afford a top attorney, and she has an eyewitness (female) who saw David try to rape her. Yet she can’t hold him -- or her possessive ex, or the sleazy TA with whom she’s having an affair -- accountable because he is a man and she is a girl. She must have misunderstood a consensual encounter, or forgotten to take her pills that day, or taken too many. She must crave money (she has plenty) or attention (of the worst possible kind). Teddy Wayne holds up the Ivy White Male card as the ultimate trump. He means to slap awake a country that glorifies wealth; deifies men; objectifies women; and treats victims of sexual assault like sluts, kooks, and gold-diggers. The story barely qualifies as fiction, and it arrives on our shelves just in time.
Mark de Silva wrote his debut novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio) between the hours of five and eight a.m., before day jobs at such revered publications as The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New York Times. For the first five years, he showed it to no one, sparing friends and colleagues the awkwardness of false encouragement. Contrary to the literary pedigree in which he steeps, de Silva comes from philosophy (he has a Bachelor’s from Brown and a PhD from Cambridge). He doesn’t want to be Jonathan Franzen or even Jonathan Lethem. He questions the rise of absorbing, familiar “memoir fiction,” and insinuates that J-Franz dumbed down for his audience to double his dollar. In a sprawling 3:AM Magazine essay from last December, de Silva writes: Consider how many novels of agreed artistic merit -- Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities, To the Lighthouse, or, to take Franzen’s chosen status-model exemplar, The Recognitions -- make no attempt to hold us in a continuous state of absorption. Their authors could not have failed to understand, in writing them, that it would have to be the ravenousness of the reader’s mind that drove him through these books, if anything did. The ravenousness of the reader’s must drive him or her through Square Wave. By the author’s own admission, his is a strange, unflinching work that almost defies explanation. It takes place in the future, and the past, but it’s really about the present. It is equal parts discursive and destructive, philosophical and textural. His is a sci-fi novel of ideas -- the former term a pejorative by literary standards, the latter one by de Silva’s. I appreciate de Silva’s ideas, and his sentences, and his time, and his candor, but I won’t pretend I grasped the bulk of his book. The Millions: You’ve said that the Square Wave writing process was deeply intuitive. Did you map out the plot beforehand? Mark de Silva: Definitely not. I used index cards, but they were bits of sense memory, like the gleam of a knife or something. That would be enough to trigger a scene. That’s all I wanted from the index card. I didn’t want a fixed idea because I was writing what I knew would be regarded as a novel of ideas. I was especially wary about the wooden kind of book that comes out over-determined. It almost seems like a kind of allegory or parable; I was very concerned not to do that. It seems like such a waste both of philosophy and of literature: it’s the worst of both worlds. It’s not rigorous philosophy and it’s not glorious or imaginative literature. I was wary of thinking about it too much. But I had had no real creative writing background since my undergrad days, when I had done a few fiction pieces and a couple of workshops. So I was doing this research and taking these notes and just hoping I could summon capacities that I had no real knowledge I could. TM: Did you run into doubt? MDS: When I applied for the Paris Review internship -- you have to do these analyses of pieces and suggest what’s wrong, whether this belongs in the Review or not -- my dad said, “How would you know anything about it?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I read a lot. Why does the world have to be this credentialized thing?” So I was starting from that outsider’s point of view from the beginning, even getting that job. I thought, I’m just gonna build from scratch, without an idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And that was true of the entire book; it was a seat-of-the-pants thing. It was scary to do, but it was also like, look man, you’re not part of that creative writing world, you’re gonna have to find your own terms. Because I didn’t want to write a standard literary novel in the way that we have, you know, good novels by people like, say, Maggie Shipstead. I knew that wasn’t me, because I wanted to draw on all the philosophy and all that I had done. I knew there was not going to be a great template for what I was doing, so I said fuck it, I’m just going to run with it, see where my instincts take me. TM: How did the work you read at the Paris Review and Harper’s affect that outsider’s mentality? MDS: Being at The Paris Review was wonderful in the sense of -- first of all it’s a great operation, a very interesting place with very smart people. But it was also teaching me that I was not going to write a Paris Review story. It’s just not who I am. We had a story run by Claire Vaye Watkins, another by Alexandra Kleeman, and Jonathan Franzen. It was a nice time to be there; we caught a lot of these big things. And Lorin Stein was just taking over, so there was a new regime. Lorin Stein plays a big role in shaping New York sensibilities; I think that’s fair to say. I was seeing that, as much as I respected what was in the magazine -- like I get why it’s in the magazine -- I also did not feel an intuitive bond to it. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. It almost steeled me against becoming a hack Paris Review writer, like a bad version of Alexandra Kleeman. I figured, draw on your strength -- your strength is your difference. Your strength is that you’re not one of these people. You’re not a Yale English major who has dreamt all their life to write for the Paris Review. You’re this weird philosophy guy who’s trying to find some way of harnessing his idiosyncratic sensibilities, and maybe it’s literature. TM: Square Wave is a challenging book. Did you worry at all about its marketability? MDS: I knew from the beginning that this was gonna be a difficult book to sell. [Laughs.] I wasn’t totally surprised when a lot of agents -- who were nice enough to read, you know -- just sort of shrugged their shoulders, saying, “I don’t even know how to criticize what you’ve done.” They didn’t say, “I didn’t buy that motivation;” that’s not the kind of criticism I got. It was more like, “I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what kind of market exists for something like this.” [Laughs.] But I was inspired by people like Tom McCarthy. I also remember reading Javier Marías, who has become for me a very important writer because he’s very discursive, very philosophical. But also his language is very, very literary, and he refers to his work as a mode of literary thinking. In other words, thinking and literature, thinking and scene and sense detail are one thing -- not two things. It isn’t pretty language mapped onto thinking, or taking rigorous thinking and finding a way to turn it into literature. It’s trying to do both at the same time. I took great inspiration from Marías, because I saw this guy and thought, Oh, some people do this. TM: One of the themes of the book is that violence is inevitable and often unfathomable. If that’s the case, what should we do? How should that truth shape our philosophy and/or our politics? MDS: I think the book...Thinking about it now, the book is an attempt to grapple -- without that distance that’s normally part of academia -- to grapple in a real life, textural way with just that question. It would be nice to believe that all our social problems or moral dilemmas could be resolved through mechanisms that became part of the culture as far back as the Glorious Revolution. From that point on, there’s a rejection of monarchy, the sovereign as an absolute, and the people are in charge of a parliamentary system. From that point on, we’ve believed that the parliamentarian system of consensus-building amongst discrete points of view is the best mode of governance. I don’t think the book is necessarily a rejection of that, but the book is a revisitation of the question, like, how certain can we be that these Enlightenment mechanisms can lead to a stable society? In a community that’s so fractured -- the way obviously America is, as well as many other parts of the world -- is a simple taking of votes the way to solve those problems? Where the state is simply a managing agent, a sort of referee. We tabulate votes, and whoever gets the most, we’re gonna live that way. And the rest of the people are gonna have to learn to live with it. That’s our system, now, you know, and that 49 percent who lost end up feeling really, really unhappy. It’s the consequence of a certain kind of democratic, almost legalistic-democratic thinking, of poll-taking, vote-taking. Where the losers just have to live with it. Like suck it up, you lost. TM: In our defense, that competitive streak does seem very American. MDS: And now we’ve come to laugh at the half that lost! We’re not even trying to connect with them anymore. Like, “We have Congress now. You’ll live like us now.” And then the next election, “Oh, now we have Congress.” Or, “We have the President.” We’re not communicating anymore. I don’t think so. We just want to win. We want to win, and the book is about that idea of factional winning, right, 'cause there are all these competing factions -- and how it seems the driving force for many of them is simply, “I wanna come out on top so that I can dominate the rest of the players. As long as I can hold on, then I don’t have to take the rest of the players seriously.” I think that’s how the book proceeds in a certain way. It’s frightening, but I do think it’s true to a certain kind of neutered conception of democracy. Parts of the book suggest that the state itself has to take a stand on this. A community has to have shared values. It’s not enough to say, “We vote, and if I win, you’re gonna live like me,” or, “If you win, I’ll live like you.” That’s not a good agreement. That’s the contract theory, right? A contractual view of politics maybe is not as good as a communitarian view, where we say, “Tell me why living the way you want to live is a good idea. Just tell me.” Let’s have moral debates rather than vote-taking debates. I think a lot of our politics now is about who can get better numbers at the poll, rather than actually reaching out and trying to convince someone of a way of life. TM: I’m assuming the current election season reinforces that notion for you? MDS: Absolutely. I mean look at the way the elections are covered; we’re not even interested in understanding. We want to ridicule the Tea Party, but is that really productive, for even a leftist? I actually don’t think that’s productive. I think we have to ask what is motivating these people. After 9/11, for instance, the original reaction was, “We just need to kill a bunch of the people from the Middle East.” I mean, let’s face it, there was a bloodlust. Later people starting thinking very systematically -- I think Susan Sontag said very shortly after, and very controversially, “We need to ask questions. Why would anyone be driven to do such heinous things, and to throw away their own life?” Like, these are suicide bombers. Something must be going on. These people are not insane. They don’t need to go to a psychiatrist. But that’s how we portrayed them: monsters. They’re people who somehow feel betrayed. And I feel, in a different way, that with the Tea Party -- from a solid, liberal-leaning citizen, which I feel like I am, essentially -- that our obligation is to say, “What could drive someone to a Tea Party view?” Not to say, “Let’s rally troops and win, because these guys are nuts.” I don’t like that, and I don’t think that’s productive. I’ve said this in a very roundabout way, but that’s my feeling about politics, and I think that comes out in the book. TM: You’ve also said that you like the idea of stretching people’s brains a bit, and making them read something they wouldn’t normally read. MDS: Right. TM: You called these kinds of books -- your kind of book -- an “acquired taste.” MDS: Yes. TM: If your book is an acquired taste, what is it? MDS: [Laughs.] It’s like a 140-proof, barrel-strength whiskey. It doesn’t go down easy. In terms of the reading experience, it has to be consumed quite slowly. We’ve gotten used to immediacy and absorption and rapidity. We expect books to just pull us in and run with it. This is a book that you should probably not try to read 100 pages of in a night. I like literature, and experiences in life, that -- rather than cater to our existing intuitions about how life works, or about how literature works -- expand our understanding of common sense. I hope a book like mine will strike someone as violating a lot of common sense ideas about literature. I know it will. It violates my common sense about literature, and I wrote it. I had to follow my intuitions to this strange place. I know it’s kind of crazy and unstable and uncomfortable: that’s how I felt writing it. So you could say, in the weird way “memoir fiction” is all the rage now, that’s the way that autobiography figures in mine.
Indie rocker Alina Simone’s loyal army of depressed Jews was surely devastated when Simone bowed out from music a couple years ago to focus on her writing, but it’s hard to kvetch about the results: the hilarious and humble 2011 essay collection You Must Go and Win, and Simone’s shrewd debut novel Note to Self, which FSG published in June. For a book in which relatively little happens (Simone’s husband joked while reading that he “couldn’t wait to read what doesn’t happen next!”), Note to Self is about a lot of things: Internet addiction, the thirst for fame, what makes art art, and when it’s time to suck it up and get your shit together. The novel’s origin story is a strange one: Simone loved the title of a Tao Lin book, Shoplifting from American Apparel, so much that she set out to write the book she wanted Shoplifting from American Apparel to be. (Simone has read some of Lin’s work, but not the book whose title inspired her.) Though there’s no actual shoplifting in Note to Self, it does capture the “loose half-hearted morality of the hipster generation” that Simone had in mind when she started writing the book at a mercifully WiFi-less Think Coffee in the East Village. Simone took time away from not tweeting or emailing (“Sitting in front of the computer doesn’t make me happy… I unsubscribed from everyone on Twitter except one dead girl”) to meet me at the FSG office, where she sat in a fat leather chair, profane profundities escaping her mouth like jagged bursts of cigar smoke. The Millions: So, there are some gilded turds in your novel— Alina Simone: That really happened. TM: Those are real things? AS: No, I mean nobody really gilded turds, but I had a day job that was in the Financial District and City Park, a few years ago — they always have sculptures there, public art — and they had these things that looked like giant turds. They were painted white or black or whatever but you’re wandering around wondering how this dude pulled this off. Like what is this? What was in his mind when he sat and made this? Was it just the way the clay came out of the bag? And he just said, “I’m done”? It literally looked like shit. I would walk through these giant shitty things and think, It’s kinda cool. I’m glad I live in a magical city where giant turds can decorate the landscape, and that someone is making a livelihood decorating public parks with terrible turd-like sculptures. But it got me thinking what if it literally was shit? If the guy said, “This is shit. I have this whole pretentious and elaborate backstory that makes it okay and makes it art.” I thought that would be really funny if it really was shit; that’s what inspired me. TM: Somebody has put shit in a gallery before, right? AS: Lots of people have put shit up! God, when I was in art school, there was a guy in my class — there was an end-of-the-year exhibit of all the undergrads’ art, and he wanted to do horseshit. It was horseshit in a bowl; he hadn’t made a beautiful painting or sculpture out of horseshit. He got some horse or cow shit and there was just a bowl, and maybe a sign over it, but it was conceptual. And my university wouldn’t let him do it because they thought it was a public health hazard, because it wasn’t behind glass or anything; it was just a bowl of shit. They said what if someone touches it, or there’s some disease in it? I dunno, it did seem a little conservative, ‘cause come on, no one’s gonna touch it, and being in a room with some cow shit probably isn’t gonna hurt anyone. But it was this huge thing and it made all the papers and I think eventually he did put it in a glass box. People have been putting shit in places for a long time. Shit is a thing. It’s totally a thing. Shit, pee, any human bodily fluid. It sells. People are into it. TM: Do you think there’s more of that kind of shit in the art and photography and film worlds than in literature or music? Or do you think there’s the equivalent of that in every medium? AS: I think that photo and painting and definitely video, certain art forms are probably more conducive to — I mean if you’re sculpting things I guess you can be scatological, you can use shit, sure. All of those. Literature, definitely. I feel like there’s a whole subgenre of people who write very salacious things to varying degrees of quality. I’m fine with you writing something really dirty and racy if the sentences are nicely crafted, if the writing is carefully constructed. But there are people who just poop it all out, just bloggy vomit of what happened to them, and it’s really really salacious and so it draws people. It’s like when I was in school, it was really hard to compete with people who were just yanking on people’s biological impulses to look at a giant picture of a vag. You might take a picture of a tree that’s awesome, and you used a 8 x 10 camera and it took you two hours to get that shot right and then you mixed the developer by hand using a gram scale and fine-printed it, and you made this Ansel Adams-level picture of a tree—and right next to it is this huge picture of a vag. I mean that was the photo that greeted everyone in my art school for six months. It hung over the front desk; there was a person sitting at the front desk and above him was this vag — TM: As if he’d just exited the womb. AS: Exactly. It was just a logical progression. I remember, because I wasn’t doing that kind of art — with no judgment of value; I just happened to not be doing it — and I was like damn, it’s really hard to compete with people who are doing that. I can see why they want to look at that vag more than my tree. It’s really a brutal world out there. That was definitely another genesis for the book. I feel like that issue of narcissism in art — I don’t mean to call it narcissism, but there’s no word for it, so for lack of a better word, narcissism — I thought it was such an interesting philosophical thing to explore, and I wanted to try to do it in a narrative form. I think it’s a fascinating subject and one that really hits people’s buttons. You might have an aunt who’s 70 and you take her to New York to go to some gallery, and she might say, “What the hell is this? I could make this! I want to have an experience of art that’s deep and meaningful. This sucks.” People like to debate what makes things art, what makes things worth something. So that was part of the drive behind the book. TM: You’re essentially retired from music. Do you miss it? AS: I do. If a billionaire waved a wand and said he’d set me up with all the things I need to make an amazing album, I would do it. But the economics of it are just so daunting, like how do you even break even on the production costs of an album at this point? And as a solo person — I’m not part of a five-person band sharing the load — just the promotion of it. I’m not a very self-promotional person; I don’t love doing Kickstarters and websites and tweeting and blogging. I just don’t like it. The way the music industry is now, it’s essentially weeded out people like me who don’t like that stuff and aren’t good at it. If you’re kind of quiet and you don’t want to beg people and make a big thing, there’s nowhere for you to go because all the labels that used to support those people are bankrupt now. My label that put out my first two records went bankrupt. The label that put out my first EP went bankrupt. That whole tier got wiped out, and then it just leaves the major indies, and I think you have to be really going for pop success if you’re going to try to get signed to one of those, and I’m not doing that at this point at all. So it leaves you in a place where you’d have to do it all yourself and spend a lot of money, and more importantly a lot of effort and time doing things you don’t like doing that don’t reflect who you are, and it’s just exhausting. So it’s kind of sad. It does make me sad because I love to sing and I would love to make some amazing album, but I just don’t see logistically how it can be done. I think every day how I can do it without doing all this stuff, and I can’t figure it out, and no one else can figure it out either. It’s a constant discussion in the music world of the new model and how to make it all work. TM: It seems like every job I apply for wants me to be proficient with social media and HTML and all this other stuff. There’s a whole new skillset and the younger people are going to be fine with it, I think, because they grew up with it. I used to sub at my old high school and they all had laptops that the school had lent them for the year, and they were on their cellphones the entire time. AS: That would totally freak me out. That’s crazy. Yeah, maybe the new kids will be all about this stuff. I don’t know. I have very strong feelings about the right to be quiet, and the right to not be self-promotional. I actually pitched The New York Times an editorial about the right to be quiet, trying to put forward the notion — especially as a musician, now that things have changed and now that a purely capitalist system is not going to support musicians at the level of real people, not Lady Gaga or something — I said why is it that people keep telling musicians they need to change their model and be self-promotional and tweet and Kickstart and do this and that? Why don’t cultural institutions that support all the other arts open the umbrella to support pop musicians? Because at this point all the pop musicians I know — even people you’d be shocked, shocked that are struggling — are really having a hard time making a living. It was never how I made a living; I always had a day job and I’m married and I’m fine, but I know people who this is their life, they don’t have another source of income, and downloading and all this stuff has eaten away at their livelihood. Why is it that now that I’m a writer I can get a job teaching? My resume as an indie rocker completely dwarfs my resume as a writer — very impressive, lots of press from fancy places and citations and awards and things. But there’s no job for that. How come that is less valid an American art form than writing poetry and saying, “I published a chapbook with 500 copies on some little press that some guy runs”? TM: “You’re hired!” AS: Yeah, but they are hired. And I don’t understand why that is seen as more of a valid thing to teach undergrads than songwriting. It’s just another genre, another format. Just like poetry has its constraints, so does songwriting. Why is it that you can get a Guggenheim Grant for being a writer but not for being a pop musician? If you look at the requirements, you’d really be shoehorning your way in. They’re not trying to get people like that; the musicians who are encouraged to apply for that are experimental or world or something that has traditionally been labeled as uncommercial. But indie rock is uncommercial now — it’s free, people steal it. It’s not a way to make money. So I pitched this article to say that it’s not just musicians who should reform themselves; they’re fucking reforming. They’re doing everything they can; they’re hustling and scrabbling and selling t-shirts and god knows what else. But what about the cultural institutions? Why shouldn’t anyone else reform given the way things are? I feel really passionately about that too; I think it would be — in every genre, not just music, but writing and film and everything — I think it would be a huge loss if we lost the quiet artist. Someone like Kafka or PJ Harvey, who does not blog or tweet or anything. If we lost that artist because it wasn’t possible to be reclusive and just go away and make great art. That would be tragic. TM: Do you think it’s because there’s a stigma attached to more popular art? That the more popular something is, the less intellectual or artistic or deserving it is? AS: I think there probably was some truth to that at a certain time, maybe in the ’80s, but I think that most people recognize that even genre things take a great deal of skill and craft and art to execute well, and that you can be just as much of an artist working in a really broad universal genre way. But I think the Guggenheim also says you can’t enter if you’re a genre writer — so what does that mean? Colson Whitehead’s last book was a zombie book. It’s clearly not just a zombie book for stupid people, which is what the Guggenheim is implying. But a zombie book for smart people — would that be okay? Or is it just not okay because it has a zombie in it? What do you call Stephen King, who went from being a pulp horror writer to one of the great American writers, who’s publishing in The New Yorker now and getting all the awards and reviewing for The New York Times Review of Books? Is he a genre writer? I feel like our cultural institutions are twenty years behind in terms of what art really is and their definition of art. It’s crucial that those people — they are the supporters and arbiters of taste, and upholders of art and art culture — they should be keeping up with the times and nurturing art of all kinds. They’ve become these weird gatekeepers for a very old school vision of what art is, which is stupid and annoying. I checked the Guggenheim requirements about a month ago for this article, and I think maybe children’s writers weren’t allowed, so what does that mean? Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak — are these guys just hacks who don’t deserve it? I don’t understand this criteria. Maybe it’s just because Mr. Guggenheim, this rich guy who died like 70 years ago, said, “THIS IS HOW IT SHALL BE.” But it’s not just them; it’s a lot of different cultural institutions that cling to this idea — like the music that needs to be supported is the weird experimental music that no one listens to because that’s uncommercial. Well, okay, but there’s extremely innovative and complicated and genre-pushing music being made in rap and indie rock and elsewhere, and I don’t even understand what the distinction is anymore. Frankly it almost feels a little racist to me. I feel like universities are always upset about the fact that they don’t get enough black applicants — well, why don’t you let African Americans teach creative writing based on being really good musicians? There are tons of innovative, intelligent, creative rappers; why are they less qualified to teach creative writing than some poet? It would be kind of awesome; if Jay Z were teaching a class, I would take it. Or Black Milk, or someone ten tiers down from them, whatever. I think that would be interesting. And don’t even get me started about opera. Like, really? This? The average age of an opera-goer is like 80, and it absorbs massive amounts of resources and millions and millions of dollars to support something that such a tiny section of the population cares about or can even afford to see. Almost no one can experience this art that you’re spending lots of tax dollars and public money supporting. There are crazy disparities there. Maybe that’s what my next novel will be about — it’ll just be one long rant about that. That no one will read.