Shane Jones’s new novel Vincent and Alice and Alice is about divorce, America, desire, decline, time, money, and work—work, work, work.
Vincent is a Divorced Guy. Former artist, now a state employee. A shady employee-enhancement consulting firm called PER selects him as a test subject for its new program, which will increase his productivity. The program makes workers more productive by allowing them to mentally live their ideal life, while in reality they work quietly without speaking. In Vincent’s case, his ideal life involves him hallucinating that his ex-wife has returned home. A happy Vincent is a productive Vincent. And the PER program requires him to isolate himself from the real world as he becomes further entrenched in the false world where he has what he wants. A happy, isolated Vincent is very productive. It all feels real and he knows it’s not. Meanwhile, it’s 2017 in America and the world is getting worse forever.
Jones’s writing has been called “nearly edible,” and to that I’d add that it’s not just edible, but also tastes good. He’s a stylist driven to explore the questions style can’t answer, the problems before which language is useless.
The Millions: When Vincent tries to impress his ex-wife by teaching painting to a class of refugees, they curse him out. They say, “Big bullshit.” They say art “does nothing.” Do you think that’s right? And if you do, is the “bullshit” of art the whole point? Part of the corporate nightmare here is that everything has to “do” something; useless art seems like a way of pushing back.
Shane Jones: I think the refugees in that situation are right. It’s one of my favorite moments of the book—here’s this aloof white guy thinking he can use his art as a way to help people he knows nothing about. I wanted to expose Vincent here. It’s a subversive moment. And, yes, the bullshit of art can absolutely be the point and have tremendous power. I adore Richard Prince’s cowboy paintings, a project that relies on a certain ironic, black-humor appropriation that is also so pretty. I’m the audience for this. But I’m not sure Richard Prince’s art can help the toddler being pulled away from his parents at the border.
TM: I read parts of this book as an indictment of conventional success. So I was wondering what success looks like for you, as a literary novelist with an independent press?
TM: Were Elderly’s scenes the most fun to write?
SJ: The most fun and the saddest. He’s based off a guy who lived in my old neighborhood who owned multiple houses but decided to live in his old car instead. He maintained only the outside of the homes and his wife lived in one of them. After he died I saw her drive down the street in a brand new BMW.
TM: PER encourages employees to embrace the mundane and routine. Are you inspired by the mundane?
SJ: Unless you’re totally off the grid, you’re in some kind of system—work, marriage, home ownership—and those systems thrive off the mundane routine. PER takes it a step further and is a satire on modern work, but I’ve certainly felt the mundane and routine kind of putting me into a daze, driving home from work and just totally zoned out. But what if that feeling could be deepened and you could access something else? Maybe the routine and mundane and the boredom is a traveled purgatory leading us to what we want to feel and see. Dorian Blood and his power of PER is a godlike character for a reason: because God is a system too—the routine of prayer leading us toward grace. This is all satire in the book that hopefully readers will pick up on.
TM: The book centers on fantasy and desire, the way people delude themselves. What’s the role of fantasy in an office? In a marriage?
SJ: A major theme in the book is not being able to live in the present moment, in reality. Vincent is always looking to either the past or future, and also fantasy. He chooses reality in the end, but it’s also a future reality (his retirement) and still a version of Alice he thinks he can win back. So it’s not actually real. He’s still delusional. As far as the role of fantasy in an office, it’s a fantasy built on job titles and appearance, making it hard to know where the mask ends and the person begins. In a marriage? That’s all in the book.
TM: The only “community” Vincent belongs to is his coworkers, a group defined by perfunctory kindness (birthday cupcakes) and outbursts of hatred (ranging from petty feuds to vitriolic racism)—it’s a pretty dour view of society. Do you think these social extremes are American or just human?
SJ: For the concept to be believable at all Vincent had to have hardly any connections besides Alice. He had to be isolated, no family, parents dead, no social groups. Elderly is a friend, but he’s labeled as “off the grid,” absolutely not a character that could ground him, rationalize things. I’m not sure it’s so dour because it’s also funny. It’s successful in its pettiness. I think the social extremes are American. I think we’re a country who acts meanly but talks compassionately.
TM: Vincent’s childhood home now belongs to a family obsessed with Family Guy; his old bedroom is filled with Family Guy memorabilia. Contemplating a dying dog, a vet asks Vincent about an episode of Seinfeld. Those shows come from a place of giddy nihilism. It seemed to me that in the novel, those shows are invoked by other characters to erase the potential poignancy from important moments in Vincent’s life. Do you see that as the role of most entertainment? To numb us out? Do novels do this, too?
SJ: The role of entertainment was on my mind a lot during this book. The shows you mentioned I loved 15 years ago but now I can’t watch them for the reasons you just mentioned. Your question is complicated because I do believe most entertainment is passive entertainment, you kind of just sit there and don’t really engage in the show and you can view hours and hours of a show and enjoy it but also feel like shit after watching it. Novels, or a lot of novels, force you to really work with the text, so it doesn’t numb you out at all, but pushes you, engages you. But now a lot of novels are more like TV shows with pretty covers you can put online. One of my goals with Vincent and Alice and Alice was to write an entertaining mainstream novel that also pushes people, feels a little weird and imaginative.
TM: Are there any common goals (or obsessions or attitudes) connecting Vincent and Alice and Alice to your other novels?
SJ: It’s the opposite—I wanted to disconnect. Vincent and Alice and Alice is modern, first person, with lots of plot and character. Something that, to me, feels like a mainstream contemporary novel. The reality/fantasy thing is still happening, trying to mend those together, but VAAAA is very different than the others, which relied heavily on fantasy and whimsy and images. I wanted to change my style and approach drastically, to the point of collapse and failure.
TM: Was Vincent and Alice and Alice always the book’s title?
SJ: Hold on, let me find my list…I had a bunch. What Year Alice was one of them for a long time. Also: Pond of Glass was a holder for a few weeks. Black Hole Vincent. Summer of Ghosts. The Collapse of Alice. Lots of bad stuff. Then, at the end, I wanted the most traditional mainstream love story title I could think of: Vincent and Alice. But a friend of mine made an excellent suggestion noting the second Alice and added Alice at the end. Vincent and Alice and Alice. I fell in love. My Dad thought it was about a threesome.
TM: Given Vincent and Alice and Alice’s preoccupation with resurrecting the past, is there any dead writer you love that you’d like to bring back to life?
SJ: Would be fun to bring back Kafka and take him to the mall.
TM: What’s next?