August 12, 2019 | News | No Comments
Your story in this week’s issue, “Elliott Spencer,” involves a scheme in which down-on-their-luck people are “reprogrammed” and deployed as political protesters. I’m guessing that the story was inspired by accusations from Trump and others that Democrats were paying people to protest at his campaign rallies and elsewhere. Or did the inspiration come from something else?
It came from this idea I’ve had since I was a kid and had a really high fever and noticed that I . . . wasn’t myself. Everything was crappy, and all the things that normally made me happy weren’t making me happy anymore. Then I came out of it and there I was again: same old me. That really stuck with me—how mutable “I” was. Although we think of ourselves as being solid and continuous and consistent and all that, we aren’t, really.
So the story began as a thought experiment: Who would I be if all my memories and my language were erased? If I were like a new computer just out of the box—all operating system, no data? Would residual habits of thought continue to define me? What would it be like to have to learn language from scratch? That sort of thing. In the early drafts of the story, I was just trying to figure out how a guy like that might sound. Trying to find a voice is, for me, the first step—a little challenge to work at until the story kicks in.
Once it did, another set of ideas started to find their way in—this time inspired by something I witnessed while working on a nonfiction piece for this magazine. At a Trump rally in Phoenix, I saw these two otherwise nice-seeming middle-aged guys, one pro-Trump, one anti-Trump, just bellowing at each other, both using stock phrases that they seemed to have picked up from their respective TV networks. It was sad and nightmarish. I got the sense that if one had seen the other with a flat tire he’d have stopped and they’d have gotten along fine. But, in this context, they were ready to kill each other. The whole post-rally scene, in front of the Phoenix Civic Center, seemed very theatrical—a little circle of wild, violent action and then, beyond that circle, people casually standing around, filming it on their phones, checking in with their husbands or wives, talking about their softball leagues, or whatever. And yet the violent action mattered: that was what was seen by the world beyond Phoenix. So that was on my mind, I guess—this brave new world where reality matters less than mass representations of the same, the loss of nuance and gentleness when bodies need to be mustered.
But, honestly, this early in the game, with the story only just finished via our editing process, I’m not exactly sure what it means. I’ve been (we’ve been) working on how it should proceed. That, to me, is the wonderful thing about fiction: the meaning of a story is contained in the way it unscrolls, in the experience the reader has, phrase by phrase. Everything else—the analysis we tend to feel the need to do—is reductive (fun, but reductive). The reading experience, when you think about it, is so complex and lovely and hard to describe: ideas come up and are complicated and refined by the next beat; moral notions arise and are challenged; the language surprises; parallel images from our own life are continually invoked; questions that, in our everyday mode, we’d be more simply opinionated about are endorsed and negated and complicated. All this happens at once, and in a granulated way that’s impossible to describe. I think it’s important to be respectful of how mysterious the whole deal is: a person being moved by a story another person made up. It’s weird but it happens and it can really change people’s lives. I think fiction at its best can serve as a moment of induced bafflement that calls into question our usual relation to things and reminds us that our minds, as nice as they are, aren’t necessarily up to the task of living, and shouldn’t get cocky.
Your protagonist, “89,” or “Greg,” has had his memory erased and is re-taught language and syntax. How did you decide on your method for showing that typographically and visually?
Usually I work (to an extent that’s hard to communicate adequately) from instinct. A certain thing will just . . . seem good. Or won’t suck as much. And if I follow that feeling, obsessively and iteratively, the story will head off in a direction that I couldn’t have predicted, that will be more alive and weird than anything I could have planned. So, in this model of fiction, the writer is asking, “What would you like to say, story?” rather than ordering, “O.K., story, here’s what I need you to do.”
I did a big tour for my novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” and noticed that, when a person (me, anyway) is talking about how a work of fiction came to be (as one tends to do in that book-tour situation), he’s almost inevitably being too rational, short-changing the actual process by which the book was written, making his intentions sound grander and more cut-and-dried than they really were, or talking as if he knew from the outset what the piece’s charms and power and meaning would be. That’s not how I experience writing fiction, at all. It’s more like a series of optometrist moments (“Is this better? Or this?”), and then you look up after a bunch of drafts and the story is saying . . . something. But you’re not sure what, exactly—it’s got a mind of its own and is talking to you via your attempt to improve those small, line-by-line moments, which, in this case, included things like whether to capitalize after a gap in the text and where to break up the character’s sentences. The story communicates its deeper intentions to the writer through thousands of line-level choices.
Here, I just tried to imagine what the world would look like to this guy whose memory and language had been “Scraped,” and that unusual spacing came to mind as a way of communicating, I guess, “tentativeness.” (I’d used a version of this for the Willie Lincoln sections of “Lincoln in the Bardo.”) One interesting thing is the way that format affects output—a sort of feedback loop kicks in. You see the in-progress text, with those spaces in it, and that colors what comes next. It’s like speaking with an accent: if you speak with a British accent, your thoughts are altered by the sound of that voice coming out of you and you start saying surprising things. (“I am not, my good lord, chuffed about Brexit, but, rather, knackered from bloody talking about it.”)
89 feels real compassion and love for Jerry, who teaches him English and mobilizes him to protest. And the feeling may be mutual. What inspires that connection between these two men?
On Jerry’s side, 89 is just an interesting and challenging chance to experiment on somebody. I think that’s how technology gets out of hand: the technology is developed and, of course, people (specialists!) whose lives have revolved around developing that technology get excited and have no choice, it seems, but to plunge ahead. (Think of the hydrogen bomb. Or Cambridge Analytica. Or some of the overproduced records from the nineteen-seventies.) I think Jerry becomes fond of 89 just from being around this sweet old guy day after day. As for 89/Greg/Elliott, he adores Jerry because Jerry was his savior. He took 89 out of “blankslate”—that language-free state that, because it is technology-induced, is not pleasant. Jerry is really the only person 89 knows and he feels that he owes everything he is to Jerry. Jerry’s a sort of mother or father or Dr. Frankenstein figure: the founder of the feast, as far as 89 is concerned.
There’s a suggestion in the story that these protesters are not being deployed, as they believe, in defense of the poor and the weak.
What are they being used for?
Well, that’s left a little intentionally vague. This is set in the future, and my sense is that, in this future time, politics will have morphed to the extent that none of us, transported there, would know exactly what “our” side was anymore. Although there’s a hint, in what the journalist says about union organizers and teachers, that Jerry’s side has helped oppress. Looking at history, it seems clear, at least to me, that there’s a consortium that has always favored, let’s say, materialism/corporatism/violence. And that consortium also often exploits and encourages the degradation of language. And tends to be down on education and workers’ rights. I think that Jerry and his pals work for those guys—for the future incarnation of those guys. And Jerry’s company (which is, in my mind, something like, say, Blackwater, albeit a little more white-collar) has learned to couch its goals in sympathetic language—its representatives talk about things in the “right” way (they are “fighting oppression,” etc.), regardless of what they might actually be trying to do. This seems to be the way of the world. Nobody says, you know, “Bwa-ha-ha, let’s lock up the little kids, and have them sit in their own shit!” They say, “We are working tirelessly, under difficult conditions, to see that the rule of law is respected.” And maybe, to the person saying that, it’s true. But the kid is still sitting in his/her own shit.
In a way, the story is almost a fairy tale: this man was a mess in his previous life and now has a chance to start fresh. Without entirely giving away the ending of the story, do you see a possible happy future for 89?
Probably not materially—he’s in a rough spot. But, to the extent that he’s still himself—or his “new himself”—I think that his decision is a good and hopeful one. There, at the end of the writing/editing process, the story seemed to want to “be about” the notion that, as long as we have our minds and good intentions, that’s heaven. Or, you know, heaven’s within our grasp: we can do better, we can relate to our situation (even if it’s a bad situation) and change it, or come to some accommodation with it. 89 tells himself something along the lines of “I can still learn, am still learning.” He’s starting to understand being more articulate as a way of being “a better person.” That’s all promising, I think. These days, I take some comfort in trying to see life as a series of small, local moments. I’ve recently discontinued my (already pretty negligible) social media “presence” and it has felt good, to see how my mind responds to the removal of that particular form of projection; the world, actually, is right here, too, not just “out there,” and, in fact, the world “out there” is one degree less real than the world “right here” since seeing the world “out there” requires us to essentially project on top of someone else’s projection (those posts of someone’s trip to Malawi or a cat bench-pressing a can of tuna fish or whatever). So 89’s got some time left and, during that time, he’s going to continue to become more articulate and develop a more authentic relationship to the world as he finds it, which is, I guess, all that any of us can hope for. Of course, he might also be recaptured or die alone somewhere. One never knows.
You’ve written a number of stories that involve a kind of technological-psychological manipulation of human guinea pigs. What keeps you coming back to this theme?
I’m really not sure. I think it’s just something that I feel I can make come alive. That’s how I start—by looking for a language that’s fun to write, that I can sustain, and that keeps tricking me into making plot. And that (eventually) will divert me (temporarily) from my simplistic everyday moral positions. It’s a process that gets me out of “me”—always a relief. I don’t really have any intentions re theme or worldview. More and more, I have no idea what I think of anything. It’s as if the world were this very strange beast under a big tarp. Writing is a way of poking at the tarp. You can watch what the beast does during the poking and maybe surmise something about the sort of beast it is, but you also don’t want to be too confident in your theories. I really like the fact that, these days, I can’t say what writing is for, what it’s supposed to do, or how it’s supposed to affect us. I just like doing it.
Also, in thinking about this question, I remembered having a really powerful experience as a kid with “Flowers for Algernon.” If I’m recalling the story correctly, the main character is given this intelligence-increasing drug and then his speech changes accordingly (until he lapses back). I love that notion—of using a voice change as a character indicator.
Are there any other stories or novels you love that explore this terrain?
I think “A Clockwork Orange” is pretty hard to beat—the way that the invented language allows Anthony Burgess access to some really scary new moral spaces. I also think of “Faithful Ruslan,” by Georgi Vladimov. It’s told from the point of view of a Siberian concentration-camp guard dog and is a great illustration of the way that “limited” language can destabilize our habitual, lazy ethical constructions—can undermine our usual “us and them” way of thinking. My wife, Paula, and I just saw a staged reading of a wonderful new play, as part of the Santa Cruz Shakespeare series, called “The Formula,” by Kathryn Chetkovich—a sci-fi reimagining of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” that, through the device of a love-inducing chemical spray, was able to say some new and lovely things about the nature of passion.
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