In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton outlined what he called “the myth of the trauma hero.” It goes like this:
Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.
After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.
The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.
So goes the myth of the trauma hero.
Scranton locates the origins of this myth in the 18-century Romanticism that valued individual experience above all else. He tracks the myth through two world wars, Vietnam, and up to the United States’s most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few years have seen an outpouring of memoirs, novels, and films about these two wars, and many of the most commercially and critically successful offer their own take on the trauma hero. Scranton, however, finds this myth dangerous, saying that it “serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy.” He doesn’t fault the writers of such narratives as much as their readers, eager to honor the tales told by trauma heroes, and in so doing avoid hearing stories of war that detail the victims of violence, and — more to the point — those responsible for it.
The Infernal, a novel by Mark Doten, seeks to tell that kind of story, one that accounts for those involved in the War on Terror at nearly every level, from the grunts lugging 80-pound packs to the residents of dusty villages on the other side of the world to the highest echelons of American power. I fear that this description, however, might give the impression that the book has the dutiful, even-handed tone of an episode of Frontline. That is not the case. The Infernal is certifiably insane, a monstrous, cartoon nightmare of a book.
Open up the book, and you’ll find a “Dramatis Personae” section, like in a 19th-century Russian novel. This one doesn’t track family trees and patronymics, however; characters include Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as more inscrutable entries for “The Omnosyne” and “The Memex.” What is going on? Is this a postmodern swipe at American society like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a novelization of the Rosenberg trial that featured Richard Nixon as its protagonist? A gloss on celebrity like Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, in which Michael Douglas appears as a hologram of a character? The action and language of The Infernal are of the moment, but you might have to go all the way back to the novel’s namesake to get an idea of what Doten is up to. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri placed all his enemies from 14th-century Florence in Hell, where they gave accounts of their sins while suffering elaborate, ironic punishments. Doten wants to place these historical figures in his fiction where they will be forced to explain themselves, as this is unlikely to happen in the real world.
The novel begins in the Akkad Valley of Iraq, at a geological formation known as Al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney. Strange clouds appear at the peak of the Chimney. A patrol of soldiers goes to investigate. One of them climbs to the top, where he discovers a boy burned almost beyond recognition. The soldiers return the boy to a base. He cannot speak, sign, or communicate in any way. But the Commission, a shadowy organization that seems to catalog and thus control the world, needs the information that the boy has. They decide to bring the traitor Jimmy Wales out of prison so he can use his invention, the Omnosyne, to extract a confession from the boy.
Jimmy Wales? Isn’t that the guy who created Wikipedia? That is indeed who he is IRL, as they say, but in the universe of The Infernal, Wales was a student at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s Institute for Youth Advances, where he helped create the Memex, a worldwide network of knowledge that served as a kind of precursor to the Internet, except it was only available to the Commission. Wales broke with Dr. Bush and the Institute, however, when he invented the Omnosyne, an information-gathering tool that is half lie detector, half torture device. To use the Omnosyne, an elaborate system of wires are inserted into the subject’s tongue and spine, extracting the essential information from his very nerves and bones. The wires are hooked up to what looks like a typewriter, printing out the subject’s confession in Omnotic Code, which only Wales can decipher. Once he created the Omnosyne, however, Wales killed a dozen instructors at the Institute for Youth Advances, at which point the Commission placed him in jail for life and mothballed the Omnosyne. The Commission is desperate for the Akkad Boy’s confession, however, so they bring Wales and his device to the Akkad Valley.
Due to the invasive nature of the Omnosyne, an extraction results in the death of the subject. This is deemed acceptable, as the Akkad Boy’s confession will surely prove invaluable. When Wales hooks him up to the Omnosyne and begins the extraction, however, the pages that are printed out in Omnotic Code give not the boy’s confession, but rather the confessions of a host of different people, all involved in the War on Terror in one way or another: Osama Bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi woman named Noor, and on and on. These polysyllabic confessions form the text of The Infernal, which can read as if William Faulkner were blogging about current events, as in this passage written from the perspective of Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq.
Not much in the way of running water, friends, mostly this here’s a porta-potty town, Jay told us, I told Condi on the cell.
Meanwhile Saddam flew past . . .
Meanwhile Saddam flew right past us . . .
And meanwhile Saddam in statue form, poster form, some billboards, too, and murals of Saddam, that sonofabitch just kept on flying on past us, One hell, I said, one hell of an Ozymandian tribute, Jay with no idea, Florida State University, then Shippensburg, never overcame those early obstacles…
Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden, holed up in a cave, has his followers construct a new dialysis machine, which quickly devolves into violent slapstick; two drone-strike survivors named Rashid and Hakim stumble around like Laurel and Hardy; US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez crawls through the air ducts of Guantanamo; Iraq War Veteran Tom Pally hobbles around his ranch house on an artificial leg, trying to make dinner plans for his and his wife’s anniversary, instead getting accosted by the vengeful maitre d’ of the restaurant. In the background of all this, there are intimations of a New City coming into being, a realm of pure information that the Commission plans to upload themselves into, leaving behind the corporeal world.
At this point in the review, I’m guessing that you either really want to read The Infernal, or you really don’t. It seems like an ideal object for the enthusiastic scholarship of a devoted cult, and I sincerely look forward to the WikiLink page that will explain all of the book’s mysteries. But Doten has written his idiosyncratic book about events that will be familiar to many, perhaps even overly familiar, and it’s worth asking why.
Part of an answer may lie in Doten’s biography. Doten is currently the literary editor at Soho Press, the publishing house whose renaissance The Millions covered last year. Before that, Doten was an associate editor at The Huffington Post, working for the site at its very beginning in 2005. (Andrew Breitbart was one of the site’s cofounders, though he soon left after a falling-out with Arianna Huffington, and The Infernal has a great, nasty joke made at his expense.) Doten is sure to have edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories about the War on Terror and its many players, to the point where they very well might have seemed less like human beings and more like hallucinations, the characters in a compensatory power fantasy dreamed up by a traumatized, vengeful public. That’s not the kind of story you can tell as a journalist, however, and it’s possible Doten looked to the role of novelist as a way of telling the deeper, spiritual truth about our disastrous recent history, the kind of truth that fiction is still best-equipped to tell.
Debts to postmodern fiction aside, the book that The Infernal most reminded me of was George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer’s book is nonfiction, drawing on extensive interviews with ordinary citizens (remember when journalists did that?) as well as secondary sources for accounts of big name movers and shakers, but it’s structured very much like a novel, using the stories of its constituent characters to tell a larger, cohesive story about our current social reality, and what led to it. In fact, Packer explicitly modeled his book on novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, an account of the tumultuous events of the early part of the 20th century. Packer’s goal in the book is quixotic, using the tools of serious journalism to try and offer a diagnosis of the sickness afflicting the body politic, the reporter doing the work of the artist.
Doten also thinks that 21st-century America is sick, but The Infernal isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a bloodletting. As the Omnosyne extracts the Akkad Boy’s confession and the voices of those in power and the powerless inculpate themselves with every profession of innocence, the reader has the sense that all the lies and deceit of the last dozen years, the courage shown and the suspicion that it meant little, have been brought together in one place, between the covers of a single book. Here’s hoping that people open it.
 A little inside baseball: Scranton’s essay is, in part, a response to George Packer’s essay on recent books about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for The New Yorker. Scranton takes Packer to task for only considering works that fulfill the trauma hero myth “while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy.” Writer, read thyself.
Stand on Zanzibar is that rarity among science fiction novels — it really made accurate predictions about the future. The book, published in 1969, is set in the year 2010, and this allows us to make a point-by-point comparison, and marvel at novelist John Brunner’s uncanny ability to anticipate the shape of the world to come. Indeed, his vision of the year 2010 even includes a popular leader named President Obomi — face it, Nate Silver himself couldn’t have done that back in 1969!
Let me list some of the other correct predictions in Brunner’s book:
(1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar.
(2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States.
(3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)
(4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.
(5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives.
(6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.
(7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.
(8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).
(9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society.
(10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors.
(11) Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city.
(12) TV news channels have now gone global via satellite.
(13) TiVo-type systems allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule.
(14) Inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat.
(15) People rely on avatars to represent themselves on video screens — Brunner calls these images, which either can look like you or take on another appearance you select — “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere.”
(16) Computer documents are generated with laser printers.
(17) A social and political backlash has marginalized tobacco, but marijuana has been decriminalized.
Other science fiction books have occasionally made successful predictions, from Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (1865), which eerily anticipated many details of the Apollo program, to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) with its descriptions of cyberspace and hackers. But Brunner’s work stands out as the most uncanny anticipation of what would actually change — and what would stay the same — in the decades following its publication. Certainly, there are many details, large and small, that Brunner got wrong. But even when the particulars don’t ring true, the overarching theme of Stand on Zanzibar, which is the hidden cost of our obsession with human perfectibility, is just as relevant today as when Brunner wrote his novel.
In this book, each of the major characters is on a mission to improve the human race, and in ways that are all-too-familiar to us today. Sometimes this preoccupation manifests itself in legislation and regulation; politics — both national and global — increasingly manifests itself as a competition between different schemes for human improvement in Stand on Zanzibar. Certainly that attitude shows no sign of going out of style in the current day. Even minor characters in Stand on Zanzibar distinguish themselves by their zeal for upgrading the species, whether through writing books filled with advice and indictments, or business investment in impoverished regions, or implementing ambitious software programs that improve the efficiency and quality of life, or just good, old psychological manipulation. These too are still part of our everyday life. But the most popular — and controversial — method of human improvement in the fictional world of 2010 presented by Brunner draws on biotechnology and the potential for tinkering with our DNA.
A few days before I wrote this essay, I ran across an article about a Harvard professor who proposes placing Stone Age genes in a human embryo, then implanting it in an “adventurous woman” who would serve as surrogate mother for the the resulting Neanderthal baby. This scenario sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of Stand on Zanzibar. In Brunner’s novel, a prominent professor named Sugaiguntung is working on a comparable line of research, and hopes to create superhumans by drawing on his experiences manipulating the DNA of orangutans. Indeed, the sci-fi story sounds more plausible than the news story.
The plot is deliberately fractured and presented in fragments by Brunner, who modeled his work on John Dos Passos’s similarly structured (or rather unstructured) U.S.A. Trilogy. Like Dos Passos, he interjects headlines, bits of news stories, song lyrics, self-contained background interludes, and other cultural bric-à-brac into his narrative. But unlike Dos Passos, Brunner finds ways of pulling the different threads together into extravagant new shapes — most notably in the final pages, when a novel that seems too disparate to cohere surprises readers by the elegance with which all the pieces come together. And though there are many things to admire in this prickly, unconventional book, perhaps the most impressive feat is our author’s ability to maintain tight control with a clear sense of purpose and direction even when the narrative appears the most anarchic and chaotic. Put another way, what originally comes across as a free-spirited 1960s novel, long on attitude but short on clarity, turns out to have more in common with those artful new millennium novels, such as Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Gods Without Men, in which all the storylines converge, the colorful subplots fitting together into a brilliant and unexpected mosaic.
Two diverging plot lines dominate the novel. Norman House is an African-American who has joined the senior management of GT, a multinational corporation akin to General Electric. To advance his career and staunch his growing alienation, House signs on to an ambitious project in Africa that promises both to make bundles of money and also improve the quality of life for the citizens of a desperately poor Third World nation. At almost the same moment, House’s roommate Donald Hogan embarks on an even more challenging project — one that requires him to operate as a spy in a hostile Asian country, loosely based on Indonesia, where amazing breakthroughs in genetic research have been announced.
These two plot lines will eventually come together, but Brunner takes his time in this big, discursive book, and much of the appeal from Stand on Zanzibar comes from the subplots and minor characters. A bohemian author named Chad C. Mulligan provides both insight and comic relief in equal doses, and is such a persuasive figure that he deserves to star in a novel of his own. Guinivere Steel, the hard-edged leader of a boutique chain, is another compelling figure who only gets a bit part. Her specialty is throwing extravagant society parties in which the entertainment is built around her humiliation of the guests, especially those she doesn’t want to invite to her next soirée. And, staying true to a time-honored sci-fi tradition, Brunner includes one top-notch digital character, the computer Shalmaneser, which is to the GT Corp what that chess-playing electronic brain Deep Blue is to IBM.
As I look back at the remarkable burst of experimentation in science fiction during the 1960s, led primarily by the younger New Wave authors, I am frequently disappointed by how few of them hold up nowadays. Too often, bold techniques that promised to open up new terrain to SF during the 1960s and 1970s ended up as stylistic dead ends by the time we got to the 1980s and 1990s. But Brunner, older than most of the other New Wave authors and in some ways the least likely to deliver a breakthrough novel — he had been churning out conventional genre books, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a single year, for almost two decades when he published Stand on Zanzibar — raised the ante further in these pages and won on his big bet. And he did so with a risky gambit, in which both form and content were stretched to their limits. That he managed to get so many predictions right along the way is to his credit, but hardly the only reason to read this one-of-a-kind novel.
Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week’s Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he’s the first novelist to do so in “more than a decade.” The Franzen cover—and the Franzen headline: “Great American Novelist”—is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen’s predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.)
Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it’s hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time’s long history as literary arbiter and evangelist.
In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce
had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter.
This same impulse seems to be at work in Time’s Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: “His characters don’t solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.”) Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream,” he writes that “my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover.”
Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time’s cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America’s cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we’d describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House’s bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer—who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce’s former mistress, for revenge as much as for love—recalls Time’s offer of “a cover story on the author’s reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women’s Liberation.” Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that “only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time.”
In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time’s first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began:
Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May.
And that’s about it. Conrad’s entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine’s short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on “The Author” came right after the one on “The Significance.”)
By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set — a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather “looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending“), and, above all, a few kind words about the author’s latest. Given Time’s practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time’s goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on.
The other thing to say about Time’s audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his “light fiction” and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I’m more surprised that Time hasn’t put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.)
Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time’s literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine’s weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone “a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced“). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don’t expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross’s New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time’s). Read them to marvel at Time’s uncanny ability to feature the best writers’ worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen’s.
Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors—Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death—I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls—William Allen White did not make the list because he’s better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White’s cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments.
Each entry includes the author’s name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time’s new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can’t read online.
Israel Zangwill. “Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters.” September 17, 1923. Cover image.
Amy Lowell / John Keats. “Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet.” March 2, 1925. Cover image.
In the Chicago Tribune review of Jonathan Dee’s third novel, The Liberty Campaign, Andy Solomon wagered that “if any under-40 writer will produce The Great American Novel, it will most probably be Dee.” Dee is a former senior editor at The Paris Review, and his literary criticism just earned Harper’s a nomination for a National Magazine Award. His fifth and most recent novel, The Privileges, was published in January and only brings Dee closer to fulfilling Solomon’s prediction. James Wood called The Privileges “a clever, taught, cynically angry book about a couple with no moral tether,” and went on to say that the novel “knows exactly how to fill out its limits: well-chosen food on small plates.” Roxana Robinson echoed Woods’s praise in her New York Times review, where she said, “Dee’s writing is so full of elegance, vitality and complexity that I’m happy to entertain any notion he comes up with.”
Last week, on one of the first springlike days in New York, Jonathan Dee met with me in the recesses of Edgar’s cafe, located off the honorarily named Edgar Allan Poe Street on the Upper West Side, where Poe resided when he completed “The Raven.” We talked at length about The Privileges, as well as withholding judgment while writing, his move away from classic American morality tales regarding money, originality, and lessons learned from his time at The Paris Review.
The Millions: The Privileges begins with the marriage of Cynthia and Adam Morey, who are 22-year-old college graduates from middle class families. They’re the ideal couple who meet sophomore year and who, we assume, are engaged to be married by their senior year in college. After college, they move to New York and get married. Cynthia and Adam share a common ambition–a desire to accumulate wealth–and also an unshakeable love. What compelled you to write a novel about these characters who seemingly have everything by American standards–ambition, love, beauty, and increasing wealth as times goes on?
Jonathan Dee: At the point the book opens, they have no wealth at all. I don’t think of it as a book about rich people, really, because, to me, who Adam is makes him money. Money doesn’t make Adam who he is. In college you probably knew one or more than one of these charmed couples–people who really just seemed socially, and charismatically, and in terms of how they looked, to have it all. But not only that. The ambition that they really share at that point is to leave their own families behind, to leave their own pasts behind, and that’s an impulse that never abandons them through the twenty years of the book.
They are in a hurry in a lot of ways. They are in a hurry to succeed, but at least as important to me is that they are in a hurry to start again. They think of themselves as year zero in their own lives. As the book goes forward, they become interested to the point of sentimentality in the idea of what comes after them, but they never lose their lack of interest in what came before them and how that made them who they are.
TM: The book is concerned with the reinvention of self. Cynthia and Adam move to New York in order to forge a better future for themselves. The Privileges is also a very American tale, in the sense that they’re thinking of how to recreate themselves, how to fulfill their desires, and how to provide for their children. And also in the sense that there’s an endless reservoir of hope for a prosperous future. The pursuit of happiness is something that they pursue at all costs–it’s almost hypertrophic by the end of the novel. Are the Moreys the embodiment of the American Dream? And also, where does the American Dream fall short?
JD: When I was writing it, I wanted to be extra-careful, and this was based in part on my own reading of my earlier books. It can be a kind of trap to fall into–if you conceive of the characters as symbolic of anything, I think that has a real deadening effect. Any time I caught myself thinking of Adam and Cynthia as symbolic of anything other than Adam and Cynthia, I would mentally slap myself in the face. I really wanted that to build strictly from the inside out. So it’s true that I do think of them as having some peculiarly American characteristics, among them the attitude toward the past that I mentioned. It’s not so much that they lose their sense of hope about the future, and it’s not true, either, that they feel entitled. It’s just simply that they have a great deal of faith in themselves.
They have an enormous faith in themselves, their love for each other strengthens that faith, and in fact, they’re not wrong. The events bear that out, maybe not in the way that they would have originally imagined, but their life bears out their belief in their own sense of destiny. It’s tricky for me to start talking about them as being particularly American because the more I go in that direction, the further I get from the direction I wanted to go, which is to make these two people as credibly idiosyncratic as I possibly could.
TM: I wanted to ask you about the complexity of the characters. If the characters were entirely symbolic, it would be difficult to have empathy for them, as it would if the narrative didn’t get inside their heads.
I was reading your Harper’s essay, “Ready-Made Rebellion” about the empty tropes of contemporary fiction, and you quote Milan Kundera, who says that the novel “is a realm where moral judgment is suspended.” You go further to say that an author does this by complicating morality and providing multiple judgments and multiple viewpoints within the novel. I think you succeed doing that in The Privileges. The characters are complex, like in the way Adam justifies his insider trading in order to provide for his family and to make Cynthia happy. In terms of The Privileges, the moral judgment is suspended to the point that at the end the Moreys are still thriving. We, as readers, know what comes afterward, in economic terms. I don’t know if you intended that, but we also see their recklessness with the pursuit of wealth and desires. But we don’t see any negative consequences of their actions. Why is that? Do you think the novel speaks for itself? Or do you see it as more of a family drama?
JD: There’s a few questions in there. First of all, yeah, I was very conscious of the facts as Kundera says, it’s the writer’s job to frustrate or subvert any reader’s natural inclination to judge. That certainly is in play when you’re writing about characters like this. Ninety-nine percent of people, and probably a higher percentage of readers, have it in, in general, for characters like this, and feel when they read about people like this, “Oh, I know how I feel about them, I know what they’re like.” So, I was very much interested in making them hard to pass judgment on, at least until the book was shut, and possibly past that.
As far as their not getting punished, I can’t say I knew that from the very beginning. When I was in the making-notes-on-napkins stage of the novel, there were certainly ideas I had about Adam being brought low in different ways. But I realized pretty quickly that novels are not fables, and to make the story of Adam and Cynthia into that kind of morality play where people would be satisfied by seeing them brought low–I just feel like I can be as judgmental as anyone else in real life, but the idea of inventing fictional figures in order to then demonstrate my own superiority to them and to share that sense of superiority with the reader, and to take pleasure in watching them be punished for their arrogance, for their greed, for their fill in the blank, it just seems like a really empty exercise. So then the question became, OK, if the story of how these people move through the world is not about that, then what’s it about? I became interested in the same question that essentially Adam and Cynthia become interested in, which is, How will we have changed the world by moving through it?
They don’t have a great spiritual life. Adam’s own philosophy, if you can call it that, is very much founded on, this is the only life and you have to maximize it–you’re not going to pass this way again. So they become very interested in the kind of legacy they leave, and I became very interested in it, too, but in a different way. The legacy they leave behind is hopefully borne out through the portraits of their children rather than through the kind of plot mechanics that would result in Adam going to jail and Cynthia having her money taken away. Does that makes sense?
TM: It definitely makes sense. In some ways I read the novel as more of a family drama, about a privileged family.
JD: Yeah, definitely.
TM: They encounter the same issues that other people do, but they have a larger playing field because of their money. Also, when I think of money and class in the American novel, like in The Great Gatsby or The House of Mirth, money traditionally holds out something–it represents an empty desire or in some way causes the characters’ downfall. I thought it was an interesting choice to move away from that.
JD: To say that the desires that are sparked by wealth turn out to be empty–there’s a whole set of presumptions behind that, obviously, that are not presumptions these characters would share, so what’s the point? I mean, they do live very much in another realm, certainly another moral realm. What’s the point of dragging them forcefully onto your turf so that you can then punish them according to those terms, you know?
One book that I had in mind, as odd as it might seem, when I was writing this was The Postman Always Rings Twice. Have you read that?
TM: I haven’t.
JD: It’s a magnificent book, an underrated book, underrated by the fact that it had a famous movie made from it. But, very much a novel about two people who are epically in love and that love generates its own morality. It generates its own spirituality, and makes them into outlaws, but in a way that you never lose your sense of recognition about where it’s all coming from. You never lose your sense of the rigidity of that system even though that system diverges more and more from the rest of the world. That’s a first-person book, so in that respect it’s easier to create the sense of being more or less imprisoned within the moral system of the characters. That’s a book I really admired.
TM: That’s interesting—creating a morality system within your own realm, within your own love—because that’s very much something that Adam and Cynthia do. In a sense that’s all they have. They’ve cut their ties to the past, and in doing so they’ve lost their sense of heritage and tradition. Even their wedding ceremony is a hodgepodge of readings. Their daughter April is distressed to learn that her name has no significance within the family and that her parents’ knowledge of their ancestry is really unspecific. They don’t revisit the same vacation spots until Adam has business reasons to do so, and so it seems that a sense of novelty is very important to them, as is recreating themselves. Their gains are more tangible than their losses, and so I’m wondering, is anything lost in this? What do they lose?
JD: That’s a good question. Adam is very obsessed with his physical condition, which is explicitly a way of being obsessed with time and of doing battle with time. And even though you don’t really see him lose that battle, you pretty much know that after the book is over that battle will be lost for him, just like it is with everybody else. Cynthia is conscious of that, too. One of the things that characterize both of them very early for me is the idea that they were never where they wanted to be, in terms of time. When they were young they were in a hurry to get older, and as they become older they would try whatever trickery they could employ to either look or to actually feel younger.
The losses are small, and I wouldn’t want to overstate them because that seems to me like gaming your own system in a way–to try to balance out their gains with losses–because that’s not how they live. Cynthia’s relationship with her daughter–that’s a loss. At the point where the novel ends that’s pretty much shot, and to me it’s shot as an outgrowth of wanting to be her daughter’s peer when she was younger.
TM: I’m wondering, has the economic climate altered reception of the book?
JD: Oh, for sure. Actually, before I answer that I just remembered I didn’t answer something that you said earlier about the timing of the book, in terms of what happens after the last scene, in terms of current events. It’s really the opposite for me. I had the opportunity to write anything like that into the book that I wanted to and I really did just the opposite. I took as many explicit time markers as I could out of it. Inevitably, some are still in there, there are cell phones and whatnot. But my feeling is that there were guys like Adam a hundred years ago, there will be guys like Adam a hundred years from now–it’s not really tied to current events. He is a recurring phenomenon, a kind of eternal American phenomenon. He’s not a product of his times in any way. I just answered the question you didn’t ask. What was the question you asked again?
TM: About the reception of the book. I find it’s difficult not to read the current circumstances into the book.
JD: It cuts both ways. On the one hand, there’s certainly a lot of reader interest and a lot of critical interest in characters from that world–an interest that wouldn’t have been there maybe two or three years ago. But on the other hand, like I was saying before, what’s at the bottom of that interest is a desire to see these people brought low, a desire to see them explicitly punished. When that doesn’t happen, people find that frustrating. There’s a lot of reception I’ve seen that’s along the order of, “While it is brave of Dee not to tar and feather these characters and have them publicly hanged, one wonders, if he’s not going to do that, why write about them at all?” I get that, but like I said, it was too easy to spend years doing.
TM: Changing the ending would change the perspective. Instead of the novel being a portrait of this family, the focus would become the moral component brought into it.
JD: It would be more like a portrait of the audience.
TM: I was wondering why you chose to use a close third person narrator who moves between characters, instead of sticking with one character, or just Cynthia and Adam. April and Jonas come into it more as the novel progresses.
JD: I really enjoyed doing that opening chapter of the book, in which, as you say, sometimes the perspectives change mid-paragraph. But I didn’t think that could possibly be sustained for the whole book. There were certainly drafts of the book that had other sections from other perspectives that weren’t the family’s and I ended up getting rid of them because I liked the idea of the book being built on these four pillars. There’s one scene in the book that violates that rule, but otherwise it’s just the four corners of the castle, and they’re looking out at the world, always with their backs to each other. I thought that seemed like an appropriate model for the book.
It goes back to the question of how to forestall a judgment. It’s definitely a closer third person than I’ve ever done before because you can’t for an instant let that kind of critical gap open between yourself and the character, the sense that the character is doing something that you wouldn’t approve of, or that you wouldn’t do. There has to be no seam there at all, because once that air of keeping them at arm’s length or passing judgment on them sneaks in, it’s very toxic. So, yeah, I tried to, even though it was third person, to do it from the inside out. I could’ve done four different first-persons, but that’s very messy. There are all kinds of reasons I don’t like that.
TM: On a broader scale, your novels often deal with American enterprise–here it’s Adam working at a private equities firm. Palladio and The Liberty Campaign both deal with advertising. Your approach is realist and character-driven in novels that consider larger issues in society, business, status, and culture. In a sense it almost seems like a throwback to a more traditional American novel, and I mean this in a good way. There was a reviewer of the Liberty Campaign who at the time said if any under-40 writer could write the Great American Novel, it would be you. I’m wondering, in that sense, who do you see as your literary forebears? And what do you think of contemporary fiction–which is a very broad question, but answer it as you see fit.
JD: If there’s something traditional, or of a throwback nature, that’s in spite of myself. It doesn’t have to do with what I particularly value in literature, it just seems to be what I can do. When ideas come to me, they seem to be founded on certain types of work, and I don’t know why that is. I sort of wish it weren’t always that way, but it kind of is always that way. So, who my actual forebears are is probably more for other people to say than for me. But who I wish they were, I could say. Like Dos Passos. I have to admit, I lifted much of the end of my last book, Palladio, straight from Dos Passos. The more I go back to those books, the more I find myself emulating them.
In terms of the speed of the narrative, it was very important in this book, in a character sense, that there not be any flashbacks. I wanted to cover a lot of time but for the book to be as short as possible. It’s still not as short as I wanted it to be but I did the best I could. And the way I solved that was to have big time gaps between chapters but no flashbacks to explain what happened in the gap. Each unit has to stand for what happened in the time in between. If you look at the U.S.A. trilogy, it’s all like that. I think Alfred Kazin called it “machine prose for a machine age.” I really like some DeLillo, not other DeLillo. Often, and I won’t name any names, but often I find when I am reviewed, I’m complimented by being compared to certain writers who I actually don’t like. And I don’t know why that is, but it’s really true.
TM: That’s unfortunate.
JD: Yeah. As far as what I like in contemporary literature, I think the same thing, really. I tend, especially as I get older and I write more, the things that I’m drawn to are the things I could never do. I read Denis Johnson or I read Deborah Eisenberg or people who just have a particular type of gift or seem to be descending into something I could never descend into. That’s the stuff I’m really drawn to. Roberto Bolaño, like everybody else in the world. Donald Barthelme. I could go on. But the point is, I used to be drawn to people I thought I was like and now I’m drawn to people that I really know I’m very unlike.
TM: You were an editor at The Paris Review for many years in the 1980s. How was this a formative experience for you as a reader and as a writer?
JD: It was formative in a lot of ways. When I started working there I was 22 and I liked reading, but like most 22-year-olds, I was just a huge vista of ignorance. I would work there during the day and I would take home an armload of either the magazines or the Writers at Work volumes and read all the interviews. I really read them all, even though at that point many of them were with writers I had never heard of. That was hugely formative for me–I would really recommend that for anybody, not only because you find things in there that inspire you but because it gets across that there’s no one right way to do it. You see how varied are the forms of craziness that people bring to making a successful career out of fiction writing.
People would often say, “You spend your day reading other people’s short stories, that must be really useful to you.” And it is to a point. You can’t learn from that endlessly but you can learn a few things about what not to do. And more than what not to do, you learn what’s original and what’s not. If you have a particular idea for a story or how to begin a story or how to end a story and you think, especially at age 22, That’s really good stuff, and then you read it literally 250 times when other people do it and send it in the mail to you, it starts to get across the premium you should be putting on originality, that it’s not just about craft. My old college writing teacher John Hersey once said, on our last day in class actually, he said to us, “Just remember the world doesn’t need any new writers.” Which at first seemed like an offputting thing to say, but his point was it’s not enough simply to be good at it, even though very few people are good at it. You have to bring something to it that it has not seen or heard before. Reading 200 short stories a week will bring that idea home to you for sure. It’s not enough to write well. You have to write originally.
TM: Reading the slush pile is then a lesson in what not to do as much as it is what you can do.
JD: I guess that’s it, that’s what limits it in terms of the lessons you can learn from it. It’s really, the lessons are all about what not to do.
TM: I know that feeling from having read submissions at Tin House, too. I mean there were the cancer stories and there were the stories about babies. Sometimes they were successful, but it was what made those stories successful that was really important, what was original.
JD: It’s not enough to prove you can write just as good a cancer story as anybody else. That’s not going to get you anywhere.