[excerpt from The Novelist, out now from Soft Skull]
Wow. Eric has always been a belligerent narcissist, I thought, sitting at my kitchen table. The only reason Eric thinks inequality and suffering are the most important things is because he doesn’t know anything; and the only reason he thinks more people would cause more harm is because he fundamentally hates people. Eric’s worldview, I thought, if our diner conversation was any indication, is based on his self-centered perception of a very small portion of media about a very small portion of history, and because that small portion of history is unprecedentedly wealthy and peaceful, Eric is spoiled and ignorant.
I sipped my coffee and stared blankly at the wall in front of me; I furrowed my brow. I narrated my thoughts to myself in full sentences, imagining arguing with Eric.
First world people hurt the environment, I thought, mimicking Eric. Eric’s kid aversion had nothing to do with the environment, and everything to do with himself, I thought. Eric didn’t know anything about the environment. He lived in New York City and never spent any time in nature; looking at his life, one could only come to the conclusion that Eric, aside from occasionally lazing around on the beach, hated nature, and did everything in his power to sequester himself from it and destroy it. Eric spent his life ruining every relationship he had, thinking only of himself, drinking and doing drugs, and hurting people; this had more to do with Eric’s kid aversion than anything else. I impulsively opened Google Docs in a new tab and began typing furiously.
One way of discerning people’s intentions, I typed, is to look at the outcomes of their actions. When there is an egregious discrepancy between what we say and what we do, what we say we believe and how we live, there is no reason to believe our explanations. Eric, like so many writers of our time, I typed, exists in his imagination, but when he is confronted with another, with anything external to him, he crumbles, and so he lashes out and blames the world for not conforming to his own malformed ideas. This is why there is the perfect number of kids; this is why human life should have no future.
Eric is a narcissist, I typed, imagining Eric in his fusion hat. Eric is an impotent narcissist, I typed.
I sipped my coffee, picked my phone up off the table, and glimpsed my reflection in the blackness of the screen; then I pressed the circle button at the bottom of my phone, typed in my password, and looked at Eric’s Instagram post. I could still see my reflection on the screen, and I surveyed the general shape of my head as I sipped another small sip of coffee and suddenly felt an exhilarating burst of energy: I could start a new novel! I looked at what I’d written about Eric. I could write a novel where I just talked shit about Eric; I could write my own version of Woodcutters.
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard was one of my favorite novels; a contemporary Woodcutters would be sweet, I considered. I feverishly glanced at Eric’s post on my phone, then, right leg bouncing on the ball of my foot, turned my attention to my laptop.
The last time I went to New York and saw Eric he told me that he “can’t read anymore,” I typed, my face breaking into a grin. I imagined Eric with a dumbfounded expression, struggling to discern literal meanings of words in a book beneath a lamp in an otherwise pitch-dark room. Kill police, I thought, amusedly, suddenly remembering the drawing on his wall that said “Kill police.”
Eric has always had a problem with authority, I typed. Eric has always felt that authority was an affront to him personally, and was based on nothing more than arbitrary power. For Eric, everything is about power, I typed, because Eric craves power more than anything. Eric hates policemen, parents, teachers, even firemen, all with the same indiscriminate zeal. Eric hates philosophy, science, religion, and art, I continued. Even though Eric has taught countless classes, and even though Eric has taken more classes than me, Eric hates school, and he hates education; he hates the very nature of learning because in order to learn something new he would have to admit he didn’t know something, and would have to defer to people from the past. Eric, like so many of our literary vandals, I typed, has only ever read with a red pen in his hand. And even though he pretends to believe he doesn’t know everything— he might even say he doesn’t know anything— nothing about his behavior indicates that he believes it. Eric belligerently denies the value of anything he can’t understand—especially if it has perceived power across a dimension he thinks is important—and he belligerently insists, through his actions, which are so far from his words as to seem like they come from two separate people, that he is right about everything.
Eric acts like he is right about everything, when in fact, he is wrong about everything.
What follows is an interview between Jordan and Keegan, edited down from a conversation on Zoom:
Keegan: This book spoke to me a lot, as someone who tweets and tries to write fiction. I love this line: “Children started screaming outside in the street; I looked at my phone. There was nothing to click; I wanted something to click. I felt like I was trying to remember something.” And later you recall a quote from a memoir that says “Addiction is a memory disease.” How is memory affected by social media?
Jordan: Generally speaking, I have a terrible memory. Social media sort of tethers you to the present, fragmenting one’s ability to string together coherent memories. Even the most heinous atrocities or scandals get memory-holed relatively quickly. When you’re an addict you can’t remember the suffering of even the day before. Or, you can’t hold onto suffering with the sufficient force required to affect any kind of behavior change. For me, social media is like that too. I use Twitter, and I’m like, “this sucks,” but I continue going back to it, like some depraved fiend… It’s always better to remember something good than something stressful. Most of my memories of interactions I’ve had on Twitter are stress inducing and kind of shit. In the book, when the narrator is in the woods, he’s sort of just emerging from his laptop. When I move from an “online mode” to “real life,” it takes me a second to sort of shake free of my internet brain.
Keegan: I think back to reading Tyrant books in the midwest. My experience of it was: ordering The Sarah Book online and then there it was at my doorstep. My friends thought it looked bad. It was physically small and they didn’t care.
Jordan: I'm from Cleveland and most of my friends there cared about online literature. And so I, in a very real way, had this online life where I was publishing writing and meeting writers. And then in my real life, I just had friends from Cleveland who like, if they did read, they read Great Books or whatever. I wouldn't say it was a double life, but I was almost embarrassed. But recently I’ve felt my real life and online life merging into one.
[The sound of a motorcycle whirs by]
Keegan: What was that?
Jordan: Um. Maybe a motorcycle. Some cool guy on a motorcycle.
Keegan: It sounded like a moaning animal.
Jordan: I think he was just a really badass guy.
Keegan: The Hells Angels are out to get you. I wanted to ask you about Gian, I first became aware of you in 2016 through Tyrant books.
Jordan: I met Gian online. Then I met him irl when I was 18. Later, I tweeted that I wanted to try editing somewhere. It was great, I didn’t go to school for it. He made that possible for a lot of outsider writers.
Keegan: Do you feel a hole left by Gian?
Jordan: I miss talking shit with him on Whatsapp. In terms of literature and culture he was influential to me. But I miss him as a friend more than anything.
Keegan: The rehab scenes in The Novelist are brief but powerful. The counselor at one point gives the protagonist On The Road.
Jordan: Yeah that’s based on my life. A counselor gave me that, I was so pissed off. [Jordan laughs] I was seething.
Keegan: There’s definitely some anger in this book. That shot at small presses cracked me up.
Jordan: No comment.
Keegan: The critique of Eric read to me as a little tongue-in-cheek. Eric has a bit of an anti-natalist argument.
Jordan: When I first started the book, the Eric rant was one of the first things I wrote. I really thought the narrator was just pwning his friend. Then I realized he was worried about his own ability to have kids. He was, at least in part, lashing out due to his own impotent desire. So much of the book is about emerging from one way of thinking to another. And that process is often messy. The narrator spent the whole morning being unable to write. So there’s that too.
Keegan: Impotent desire and rage are all over this book...
Jordan: People don’t talk enough about jealousy or envy.
Jordan: Also, fuck that guy. [Jordan laughs]
Keegan: Is anger inspirational?
Jordan: A lot of my writing starts with some kind of anger. For better or for worse, having a kind of reactionary temperament often spurs me to the initial impulse to write. It never stays there for very long – thankfully, otherwise that’d be embarrassing. When it’s just anger, especially anger at another, or a situation, the writing is thin and full of cope. I hate writing where the author always stays ‘above’ their subject, like some kind of snide observer, never implicated. And when I’m angry, my writing is like this. It’s not until I have distance from the work, and it’s become more clearly fiction, that I’m then “brave” enough to see what’s really there.
Keegan: That William Gass line comes to mind: “I write because I hate.”
Jordan: I love René Girard’s idea that a lot of writing starts with the impulse to scapegoat another. Whether the writer sees himself as the hero or the villain, he’s essentially just delusionally coping. Girard thinks the great novelists see their own bullshit exposed in the first draft, but then move through it and are able to “describe the evil of the other from within.”
Keegan: Do you feel that Girardian impulse when you write poetry?
Jordan: My poetry books are from over a decade ago. They feel thinner, more self indulgent. I don’t really remember the experience of writing them. I was too obsessed with my own pain.
Keegan: The girlfriend character is asleep the whole novel. When the protagonist gives her a kiss, it reads as pretty sincere and romantic to me.
Jordan: It is.
Keegan: He drinks a lot of coffee and tea, falls into some doomscrolling, tries to write. And there she is, asleep, real. The opposite of a doomscroll.
Jordan: Yes, the opposite of a doomscroll.
Keegan: I found it all touching.
Jordan: It’s a romance novel.
Keegan: You reference Kierkegaard’s The Present Age. My friend was reading me a passage from that book the other day. It’s almost unhealthy how accurate the analysis is: “A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity.” I wanted to ask you about Christian writers.
Jordan: I love The Bible. I love Dostoevsky, the theologian Paul Tillich, René Girard, Simone Weil. Who am I missing?
Keegan: Flannery O’Connor?
Jordan: I like what I’ve read of her. I was also thinking of non-Christian books like Hunger. A critique of man as some sort of enlightened, rational creature. When I was younger, I was oriented towards a lot of things I couldn’t articulate. There is a way, through faith, to orient yourself towards something good.
Keegan: There’s that line where he says “I could not and do not want to help anyone. At least not through fiction.” I get it. No one wants to write bad self help, but a lot of the writers you’re mentioning do have redemptive qualities in their work.
Jordan: I used to have hope that my Big Brain could help me, but sitting alone with books didn’t help me that much. “Drug literature” certainly didn’t help. But literature is not self-help. It’s easy to sacrifice aesthetic quality by trying to have an effect in the world. My best writing is a process of discovery, not a propaganda effort.
Keegan: I’ve been enjoying the meme account. Do you have a team of memesters working under you? Unpaid labor?
Jordan: Haha. Yeah.
Keegan: Are the memes artistically satisfying?
Jordan: Oh they have me dying. (My friend Writers_Life_Tips recently told me we gotta start saying “living” instead of “dying”—so the memes actually have me living). I love them. It’s delightful. The memes make it all worth it. I went with Nicolette to visit my grandma in Florida. My uncle was there, and he loved the memes. He didn’t get all of the references, but he understood the memes. I felt, on a very deep level, seen.
Jordan Castro is a writer from Cleveland. The Novelist is out now.
Keegan Swenson is a writer living in Brooklyn. He is the reviews editor at Maudlin House. His fiction has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Expat Press, and the Denver Quarterly. He edits interviews at Forever Mag.