BTW: A Novel (Success and Failure Series)

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The Internet Was Built as a Weapon: The Millions Interviews Jarett Kobek

Jarett Kobek’s writing resists categorization. It swerves between fiction, personal nonfiction, and cultural critique in a fashion whose closest antecedent is probably the New Narrative prose of writers like Kevin Killian. Novels like 2013’s BTW toggle between modes: the novel rhapsodizes over Los Angeles in lyrical prose that evokes the city’s ephemeral quality, but lyricism is the velvet glove in which Kobek cloaks his acerbic wit. With 2016’s I Hate the Internet, Kobek cast off the lyricism in favor of trenchant social criticism that seemed capable of sparking class warfare. Kobek’s focus on technology continues with this year’s Soft & Cuddly, but this time he foregoes fiction altogether in favor a tale of neoliberalism’s collision with early video game culture. Using the controversy 1987 video game “Soft & Cuddly” — which was developed by teenager John George Jones — as a case study, Kobek unfurls a story of society’s panic over representations of violence and a youth-based subculture whose only goal is to undercut that society’s social mores.  I spoke with Kobek about thinking of the Internet as a weapon, social media’s role in the 2016 election, the aesthetics of male adolescence, and seriality in fiction.

The Millions: The last time I saw you was at that City Lights reading…

Jarett Kobek: Yeah, you were there for me being Bernie Bro’d. I feel like everyone who was there should have a reunion at some point, we all went through something.

TM: Especially after the election — like, the bro ended up being right about Twitter.

JK: Yeah, ultimately he was right about Twitter. He just had the wrong candidate.

TM: I wonder, in light of the election, if your thoughts on the nature of the Internet, but especially Twitter, have shifted at all.

JK: The underlying critique of all this stuff just making money for people hasn’t shifted, but I think it’s impossible to look at Trump’s rise and feel like we haven’t lived through a profound shift in the way politics is conducted. For all the hand-wringing that accompanies every election cycle over sinking to new partisan lows or how politics used to have dignity, I do think that what Trump essentially did was adopt the emotional and intellectual frequency of the Internet flame war, and turn it into presidential politics. Turns out it works very well!

The thing is, if you’re the annoying person in the flame war, someone else has to be putting forth the reasonable, well-crafted argument about some issue. And all your response has to be is, “You’re a bag of dicks.” Then you watch them slowly collapse in response trying to figure out how to respond to this thing. But of course you can’t respond to someone calling you a bag of dicks without looking like a bag of dicks, and that’s what Trump did to all of his opponents. It’s bizarre seeing the Internet crawl into presidential level politics and be effective.

TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt after the election, especially Origins of Totalitarianism, and she describes how totalitarian politics thrives on the suspension of the reality effect. It’s weird to think that that dynamic has always been embedded in the Internet, and that it might be an inherently totalitarian space.

JK: Yeah, what’s always struck me as weird is that not that long ago, there was a lot of rhetoric around the Internet as an instrument of peace, and if not as peace, then the expansion of human rights. But the thing is, basically it was built as a weapon. It was built by the Department of Defense to facilitate communication in the event of a war, to have this really decentralized network that allowed you to launch weapons. I think something about the decision in how that architecture was designed has really facilitated the moment that we’re in now. I tend to think that technology never escapes its genesis, and those engineering decisions made in response to the ideologies of the creators just persist. So there’s this way in which you can look at the underlying architecture of the Internet, which did not prioritize a specific type of communication, so that data could go in any direction as growing into what we have now: any idiot can say any bullshit, and it will have the same priority as things that are true, or things that are just.

So, it comes out of this moment, and it comes out of decisions made decades ago. So I do think there’s a weirdly authoritarian impulse embedded in the Internet.

TM: So did Trump just actualize something that was always lurking in the Internet?

JK: Yeah, I think that’s right.

TM: Let’s talk about the book. When did you start writing Soft & Cuddly?

JK: I started thinking about it about a year and a half ago, and I thought it’d be an interesting article, because there was something so strange about the game. but I couldn’t figure out what the article would be. I started to do more research into it, and then Boss Fight Books had an open call for pitches in May 2015. These people seemed like they might be willing to make a mistake on something that’s much different from what they usually do. Then I started writing in the fall of 2015, because I had the sense that I Hate the Internet was going to eat a lot of my time. I turned in a draft, and it was like the worst thing I’d ever written.

TM: So you were writing it simultaneously with I Hate the Internet?

JK: I Hate the Internet was done in October 2015, and Soft & Cuddly was written in snatches of time while I Hate the Internet was exploding.

TM: I want to get back to the stylistic connections between those two books, but can you say more about where the interest in writing about a video game came from?

JK: There was a really interesting moment when people had personal computers, a hobbyist moment when people could get a computer and tinker with it. My father was this guy who just bought a Commodore 64 in the early ‘80s and was immediately entranced with it, so my childhood was watching this Turkish immigrant chain smoke while programming this computer. I have an enormous fondness for that moment.

The second thing is, there’s something about the game “Soft and Cuddly” and its predecessor, “Go to Hell,” that I find really fascinating. There are these cultural moments, every once in a while, these moments of openness when for some reason a 15-year-old is able to exist in something like a professional context, and their work is just incredibly weird — because they’re 15! “Soft and Cuddly” looks like someone’s high school notebook from 1990, like someone’s drawing of Metallica logos come to life. There’s something really fascinating about how unpolished and immature that stuff is when it enters the wider world.

I didn’t write about this in the book, but when the underground comics scene was really happening in the Bay Area, there was this one kid that was hanging around named Rory Haze who did a handful of comics, and his work is just crazy. They were publishing a maladjusted 17-year-old! There’s something about those moments that I find endlessly fascinating, and “Soft and Cuddly” was one of the few times that happened with video games. Activision was like, yeah, why would we not publish a game by a 15-year-old? And then there was this controversy that grew up around the game, so that was interesting to write about as well.

TM: Those moments when these teen boys can exist in that professional capacity — are they moments when those boys are reflecting a sentiment in society that no one else is seeing. Are these boys cutting against Thatcherite social mores in a way that might only be possible for a teenager to do?

JK: One of the many tragedies of the teenage boy is the ability to see things in the world that are horrible, and to want to stand in opposition to them, while simultaneously embodying those tendencies. No one has ever accused teenage boys of being hallmarks of progressive thought. So you have this really weird crudeness that, because of that tension, that push and pull, is weirdly fascinating. I think you can see the opposition to the thing percolating up through its representation, like it’s trying to think through the circumstances they’re surrounded by.

TM: That makes me think, you describe the creator of “Soft and Cuddly” as being a “writer,” but narrative and plot aren’t really these games’ strong suit, at least not in the way that we recognize in literary fiction. Oftentimes, these games’ stories were written by the publisher. So what is he a writer of? Is he writing an attempt to think through his circumstances, or is something else going on?

JK: That’s a really good question! But I actually don’t know. It’s difficult — one of the things about this book that’s been really weird is that the creator, Jones, has been very supportive of the project, but there’s always this tension: I’m describing something that he did as a teenager. It’s awkward to say this stuff because I’m describing a human being who is 30 years older than the character I’m describing in the book. I can’t say much about motivation.

TM: If video games aren’t doing narrative or plot very well, then what do you think they’re providing? What’s the aesthetic pay off?

JK: Well, I think that’s hard to answer, but I think there are different functions. There’s been a very long argument about whether or not video games are art, and I think they clearly can be. I don’t think they often are, but they can be. That describes most cultural products. Most films and books aren’t art, they’re just products people put together. But I think where video games really can move into what we call for lack of a better word “art” is by putting us in the mindset of a totally different person. It’s a visitation into another’s person’s subjectivity that is relatively unprecedented. One of the things with video games that is only starting to become apparent is, like every other cultural product, the way to figure out if something is art is whether its appeal extends across decades. With something like “Soft and Cuddly,” people have been very interested in the game as time has gone on, and it’s inspired derivative works, including my book. That’s not something that you get with most of these games. No one really knows what the parameters are for determining whether or not a game is art, but you can start to see those parameters forming. You start to see it in the fact that people are still thinking about these games, which no one played at the time but which continue to inspire thought.

The more I dig into the history of this game, the stranger it got. I had no idea that these derivative works existed, but as I did my research, they kept popping up. This game that no one played somehow managed to inspire all of this stuff, and my book is one of those iterative works.

TM: Near the end of the book, a reproduced interview with British politician and novelist Jeffery Archer makes an assertion that playing video games is more dangerous than simply watching violent television, because it makes you “powerful.” What kind of power do you think he’s talking about?

JK: I do think there’s a certain power to it, but it’s the power of a certain kind of…there’s something weirdly liberating about the stupidity of the teenage boy’s notebook. There’s something hilariously freeing about seeing this thing come to life. I don’t think that’s the power he’s talking about! I suspect that because he was and is a very dark person, that power is something else. It probably says more about him than anything else—that’s a man who chased power his entire life, and maybe he could only see the game through this power of acquired political power, at the expense of anything else this experience might present us.

TM: I’m intrigued by the structure of the book, because it moves from doing case studies of life under a “postmodern” Thatcherite government, to the FalklandS War, to anthropological chapters on computer programming. It reminded me of both BTW and I Hate the Internet because there’s a sense of this roving consciousness weaving these strands together into a hybrid cultural history, narrative, and polemic. This occurs in all your books—what about that mixture of registers appeals to you?

JK: It’s funny, because it’s not even appealing so much as unavoidable. It’s something I developed unintentionally, and it’s something I keep returning to. In the case of Soft & Cuddly, when I conceived of the book, it wasn’t supposed to be like that—

TM: What was it going to be originally?

JK: I thought it would be much more straightforward in that it’d focus on John George Jones, the history of the game, etc. There was going to be a lot of information about how the game was created, its reception, and its afterlife. It was very linear. It turned out that the research I did for the book was useless. No one really remembered the games or had any information on the aspects of the game that interested me. There was a limit to the amount of useful information I could collect. But where the research did pay off was in the contemporary press accounts. I found this really remarkable article, where I got the Jeffrey Archer thing from, where British video games creator Mel Croucher did this round table with a who’s who of the British establishment. It’s crazy to think that they’re talking about a video game released on a system that no one was even using at the time the game came out. The more I try to get away from cultural context, the more it bleeds into my stories. The game’s social context just kind of bubbled up to the surface. That very quickly became the clear structure, because the other stuff just wasn’t that interesting.

TM: What are you working on now?

JK: I’ve got a book coming out through Viking at the end of the summer, in August. I just got their edits, and I’m also writing another book that is shaping up to be profoundly disturbing…we’ll see how it goes. The novel with Viking is a prequel to I Hate the Internet, written before I Hate the Internet. It’s Adeline and Baby in New York in the ‘90s. When I started writing the Internet, I thought there was something fascinating about the idea of Adeline, whom I’d conceived of as a Gen X in the decaying remnants of punk New York, having to deal with the Internet, and being thrust two decades forward. So much of my publication history is weird and out-of-joint because the book that was originally written is being published after its sequel.

TM: How did that happen?

JK: No one wanted to publish me! This is the hilarious back story to all of this. I wrote this story in 2012, and its been revised since, but I could not get anyone to look at it. It’s a very long book, so that precluded getting it published by an indie press because of cost and logistics. With Internet, it was the same story — it was hard to get anyone to pay attention to it. So when the book came out and became successful, much to everyone’s surprise, I had this other manuscript. In this process, because foreign rights offers started to come in, I had to get an agent to negotiate contracts in other countries. The agent read the manuscript and sent it out to major publishers, and Viking ended up with it. But it’s very strange, as is everything with me, a little out of order and all over the place.

TM: Is that a validation of independent publishing for you?

JK: Yeah, definitely! The virtue of having Viking do this book, other than not being able to do it on an independent press, is that I don’t have to deal with micromanaging every aspect of marketing and publishing another book. But if you do that, it can work out. So Internet’s success is a validation of this idea that you don’t need mainstream resources at your disposal to get these books out into the world.

TM: It’s funny — I’m in the Bay Area, and so when Internet came out it was everywhere when it came out, just because of the nature of people’s disdain for tech culture. But the book also blew up in part because of the Internet, right? How do you feel about that?

JK: Everyone who’s doing this has to make a series of moral compromises, and the question these compromises center around is, How big of an audience do you want to have? There’s a way to get your work out there that is legitimate, valid, and enviable, where your ethics aren’t compromised — but the reality of that is that you sell to 500 people. Having been published in small presses prior to this, I came to the conclusion that the problem as I see it with that model is that you end up communicating with people who are very similar to yourself. There’s not a huge amount of dialogue back and forth. So I made this decision that I would try to go as wide as possible. In so doing, you have to embrace the Internet, because that’s where the conversation is occurring. So you find yourself in bed with Amazon.

TM: Something really intrigues me about your work—you know, I read Internet after I found BTW in Skylight Books, and it was funny to me that Adeline is actually a minor character in BTW. I’m intrigued by the role that seriality plays in your writing. Why do you return to these characters and this world so often?

JK: The short answer is that I’m lazy! But the longer answer is that when you live with these characters — and with Adeline in particular — you end up learning something new about them as you write about them. So when I finished the Viking manuscript, I put it aside. Then I was revising BTW, there was a hole in the middle because I excised a chapter. I thought, why not have Adeline return? There was no reason I couldn’t have her return, so she did! I found it to be really interesting to think about. So when I started doing Internet, I had recourse to her again.

The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve begun to think that it might be a solution to the serious novel in our moment. It’s really hard to ask casual readers to pick up a one-off novel. A lot of the casual readers are adults who grew up reading Harry Potter, books that were multi-volume series. That’s actually what people want to read! They want to feel like each book counts beyond itself, and that there is some overlap or connection, some depth and weight beyond the individual book. That’s why people read 10,000 pages by George R.R. Martin, because even if it gets strange and incomprehensible by the last book, there’s still the weight of the characters growing through time, and you can’t get that through a one-off novel…

TM: It’s a common thing to video games and science fiction novels, right? This idea of world building?

JK: Right, and it used to be something that mainstream literary writers did all the time. It’s fallen out of fashion, but Salinger, Updike, and Vonnegut did it. When you think about works that have become inescapable fixtures of the post-war 20th century, so many of them featured reoccurring characters. So it seems to me that there’s something worthwhile that we can return to, and I don’t know why it’s fallen out of favor.

TM: I’ve been thinking about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which is very entertaining for a novel about slavery and Jim Crow. But part of what makes the book so riveting is that every chapter takes you to a new decade and a new character, but every chapter is rooted in a world that she’s built, so that past characters continue to appear. That episodic dynamic is intriguing, and it’s something that’s key to the American literary heritage.

JK: Yeah, and it’s very odd that it’s receded into genre fiction. It really used to be a fixture of the culture.

TM: It feels like the pretentiousness of literary fiction strangling itself. God forbid literary fiction resembles George R.R. Martin…

JK: [Laughs.] Yeah, that sounds about right.

A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad

Laura and I began 2016 with a weekend trip to Los Angeles, and though I can’t think of a better place to initiate a new life to go along with your new year — what other city is as amenable to Americans’ obsessive sense of self-mythology and cyclical renewal? — I always forget how profoundly strange Los Angeles is, particularly in the winter. The very qualities that make it America’s chosen stage on which to mount the drama of self-creation also make it a site of a profound dislocation. Swaddled year-round in warmth and light, you imagine yourself to be moving through a perpetual present; there’s always time to begin again, to wake up and do things better, to manufacture yourself anew. Time is a renewable resource, plentiful as sunshine. The sky looks like someone’s taken the roof off the world and the city itself stretches on ecstatically, looking like someone jammed a bunch of buildings together with great enthusiasm but little forethought.

You can abide all this for a few months until you actually are moving through a perpetual present in which the seasons at best mark infinitesimal variations in light and warmth and the palm trees are always swaying gently, imperceptibly, maddeningly to and fro like faulty metronomes. This isn’t to say that time is static. No, it dilates and contracts according to the whims of traffic; a trip that took you 20 minutes one day takes you an hour the next. You reminisce about an episode in your life as if it took place a year ago, only to find that three years have elapsed. Henry James disparaged certain giant 19th-century novels without a sense of composition as loose, baggy monsters. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way of describing Los Angeles itself; reverence for the accidental and arbitrary is its operating principle.

I like reading books that honor this reverence rather than treat it as a problem to be solved, ones that don’t try to depict the city so much as appropriate its flux. These books tend towards nothing more than a continual confounding, an arabesque that turns the failure to find composition into something interesting.

In January, serendipity brought me one such book. Laura and I ducked into Skylight Books in Los Feliz and loitered in the fiction section until an attractive, slender little gray volume attracted our eyes — Jarett Kobek’s BTW. The novel follows an unnamed, overeducated, literary young man who flees New York in the wake of a failed relationship, chronicling his attempt to — what else? — restart his life in contemporary Los Angeles He consorts with a cast of distinctly Southern Californian weirdoes who seem to be always high, drunk, weeping, or some combination of the three. The narrative is one of those aforementioned arabesques: we accompany Kobek’s characters as they sit in cafes, drink in bars, get sick at parties, read books, make scant progress on artistic projects, and try their hardest to navigate out of romantic cul-de-sacs. Imagine The Day of the Locust updated so that it encompasses the travails of interracial dating, celebrity worship, and college debt, among other topics. It’s a wonderfully observed novel about Los Angeles because one detects the presence of a mind actively wrestling with the city’s strangeness, rather than drawing from cultural stereotypes.

It doesn’t hurt that Kobek’s language is impossibly precise, imbued with a crystalline quality, so that when he describes something like the Grand Central Market you don’t just feel the pang of familiarity that any good novel generates, the sense that the author is in your head; you feel like you’re seeing something clearly for the first time. And while Kobek’s acerbic humor (on even more impressive display in anti-tech polemic I Hate the Internet, another of my year’s highlights) is what initially caught my attention, it’s the depth of Kobek’s feeling that haunted me when I finished the novel. BTW is a stinging social satire, but all that humor supports a sensitive evocation of what it feels like to live your mid- to late-20s in an era of ever-accelerating social fragmentation, in a city that reifies such fragmentation.

In those conditions, it’s no wonder Angelenos have developed any number of idiosyncratic practices to ground themselves. To outsiders these practices might seem exorbitant or silly, but they arise out of the starkest necessity. To prevent putting your head through your car window one day as you lurch through the city, you seize upon something, anything that might give your year a shape. When I read Eve Babitz’s glamorously lethargic nonfiction collection Slow Days, Fast Company, which NYRB Classics reissued this past summer, I felt like she understood this. Babitz chronicles a different time than Kobek’s novel, a decade when gas was relatively cheap and writers mingled with models and actors. She and her friends don’t live off much more than spurts of money from family, lovers, or the occasional gig, but they live well anyway, impulsively snorting cocaine, popping Quaaludes, and driving around Southern California as if everything between Palm Springs and Bakersfield were Los Angeles. Sometimes they work, but mostly they gossip and self-medicate. This book is a perpetual motion machine whose elliptic form elides what a canny chronicler of the human mind Babitz is. Her prose is as psychologically savvy as Joan Didion’s, but considerably more playful. Didion looked on her hometown’s surface frivolity and found an apocalyptic lack of substance and order. Babitz looks on the same and finds an aesthetic opportunity.

Nathaniel Mackey’s multivolume epistolary novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate — currently at four volumes and counting — hooked me for the same reason. The novel takes the form of letters written by a L.A. jazz musician known only as “N.” to a mysterious figure named the Angel of Dust, wherein he holds forth on everything from slavery’s legacy to the etymology of the word “oboe.” There are some loosely constructed narratives floating around these volumes (sometimes ghosts emanate from record players, or speech bubbles expand from saxophones, for example) but mostly Mackey is content to let alliteration, rhyme, and copious punning propel the novel forward. I was particularly in love with the third volume, Atet A.D., which constructs an entire storyline out of the fact that one character plays an oboe, a word derived from the French “hautbois,” or “high wood,” which another character later misrecognizes as “high would.” Highbrow hijinks ensue. In this way, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Mackey emulates both jazz improvisation and L.A.’s love of the accidental. The effect is a text that detaches language from the need to communicate anything at all other than beauty, in the hopes that beauty might teach us how to exist in solidarity with one another. This is the kind of writing that reorganizes thought patterns and social relations.

There was so much else that I read and loved this year. Zero K delighted me despite the fact that at this point Don DeLillo seems set on self-parody. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was addictive, employing a narrative structure that has the same effect as a binge-worthy TV show; it doesn’t hurt that Gyasi has sharp observations on black diaspora and slavery’s echo. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a bizarre delight, heart wrenching without being sentimental or cloying. The Underground Railroad is a neo-slave narrative whose speculative fiction elements force us to confront slavery’s lingering horror. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a sensitive and searching epic that chronicles the social effects of AIDS across several decades. And Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is an inspiring debut that undermines its own title: nothing belongs to us, because we are so thoroughly enmeshed with others.

Looking back on my year in reading from the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency, I feel a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, a friction between the great pleasure that characterized my reading life, and the thickening sense of fear at what awaits us on January 20th. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian impulse that Trump represents, such pleasure feels exorbitant. But I also wonder if such exorbitance can be a form of resistance. It puts us in more attentive relation to the people and environments in which we’re enmeshed.

To close the year out, I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s indispensableThe Origins of Totalitarianism. Early on, she makes a point that clarifies the nature of the threat looming over our nation: “Totalitarian politics — far from being simply anti-Semitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value …have all but disappeared.” Totalitarian politics want to estrange us from lived experience, from the fact that we’re wrapped up in and with others. My year in reading taught me that such immersion is what we must fight hardest for.

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