On June 8th at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, Eugene Lim launched his novel Dear Cyborgs, about which the New Yorker raved, “[Lim’s] writing is confident and tranquil; he has a knack for making everyday life seem strange . . . There’s an intoxicating, whimsical energy on every page.” Eugene spoke with author (and FSG editor) Jeremy Davies about hopelessness, capitalism, Asian-American lit and more. Check out an edited version of their conversation below.
Jeremy Davies: So, as one bag of anxiety talks to another, the book is full of, as everyone’s heard, a lot of funny stuff, a lot of comic book-y stuff. But one of the things that stood out to me, especially on the second go through, was how well you delineate the anxieties that a lot of us are feeling at this point in time, and perhaps always should be feeling, at this juncture in our culture, politically, as well as in other ways. And the book doesn’t feel angry; it’s more like describing a cage that we’re in and can’t get out, and those are the bars, and that’s the situation. And there’s a line later in the book after a description of what sounds like a Jonas Mekas performance, where one of the characters says just apropos of the performance: “This is what true death would say: not ‘I’m coming for you,’ but ‘You always dwell within me.” So—instead of talking about fun comic book-y stuff, let’s talk about hopelessness and despair.
EL: Well, you know, it’s funny, I was surprised that I was writing a somewhat political book, but that particular line is—
JD: It’s more existential, I know, but it’s part and parcel with the character of the book, which is sort of a deadpan acceptance of hopelessness.
EL: Well, acceptance is tougher, but on the very first page of the book there’s this hidden quote from Gramsci, though I am not a well-read leftist, on the leftist theory, but Gramsci, who many of you know, had these prison notebooks, and he wrote this famous quote: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” I don’t think that’s his original quote, I actually think he was somebody who made that famous. But that idea of this duality where, you know, he wrote in prison, it wasn’t the best times, and he was a realist, so he was accepting of the despair and the hopelessness, and yet he recognized that he had to be hopeful. And so it’s that contradiction that we live with. A lot of times the left will say, “don’t admit to despair, don’t admit to hopelessness,” because there’s some kind of fear there that the troops will give up and not show up or something. But what I don’t see so often is just an admission of this really hopeless feeling that is in the air, has been in the air. So I think in politics or when you’re actually debating things, you may not be able to admit your despair. But I think in fiction it’s important to confront it; so that’s one accept of it.
JD: Well, the villain of the book, to a certain extent, is capitalism, and it’s a supervillain who takes infinite shapes, and any attack against you make against it can be turned against you. But the book does a really good job of dramatizing that, and also having fun with it, and that’s one of the things that impressed me most when reading it.
EL: There’s this book by Miranda Mellis, who I also really love, she’s a great writer. I wrote about her work, and what I wanted to capture is that we live in this weird time where there’s all these disasters, these slow apocalypses—climate change, economics—on the one hand; on the other hand there’s this weird utopian techno-wonderfulness, supposedly, where we have this ability to have the internet in our pocket, and strangely we talk to people on our screens. So, it’s like, the future is here. And those two things seem initially like they’re in conflict, but one is causing the other. And that, also that conflict, I wanted to respond to.
JD: One of the other things that jumped out at me—this is actually fairly earlier in the book, and I won’t add to your reading and try to compete with you, but this jumped out at me quite a bit—the section where one of the characters—the book actually has several narrators—is speaking about his failed attempt to write a novel, and he says,
It wasn’t writer’s block then, not exactly. At the time I knew what was expected. “What was expected was a slightly modified coming of-age novel that traded on my Korean-American identity. Something not too obviously an assimilation tale—and above all clever—yet also something not too much a deviation from that sellable idea, so that the marketplace of culture could easily absorb my story without being too discomfited. Even if no one had said this aloud, to me it was clear as day that this was the assignment. “And I was willing to do it! It wasn’t ethics that seemed to make the job impossible, but rather, I think, an underdeveloped sense of humor. I couldn’t laugh it off. I couldn’t get in the right mood. To sell that subject, which, to overgeneralize, is one step past the melodrama and pathos of the first generation’s suffering. That is, in order to sell the second generation’s schizophrenia and double-agenthood, one needs to pepper the thing with jokes, so you can say, See, I’m no victim, not only.
EL: I think that there’s some great shifts that are happening, in terms of Asian-American lit, and I went to Dr. Loonam’s class—he’s our head high school teacher—a couple weeks ago, and I talked about Asian-American lit. And I realized, I’ve come to realize, there is something that impacted my life a lot that I never really thought about, which is immigration law. There was this big change in the law in ’65—which law has always been, in this country, racist—but at that point there was this big legislation that allowed people to come in from Latin America and Asia and Africa and non-Western countries. Congress at the time didn’t think that it was going to be a big deal. But it turned out to be a big deal, and this wave of immigrants came through, including my parents. And, so, what I told the kids in this class, is that when I was their age—17 or18 years old—and I met someone like me—in their forties—that person would speak with an accent. In Ohio, at least. When I went to California, things were different. But when I moved to California as a young person, and I met someone, my parents’ age or older, and they didn’t speak with an accent, I was blown away. Because there was deeper immigration on the coasts. But in Ohio, everyone I met over 40 had an accent. That was a big difference.
So, I was watching the Hasan Minhaj comedy thing on Netflix, which before it came on my feed I had no idea who this was, really, but maybe you all do. And I like the show. If any of you know what I’m talking about, there’s this comedy special on Netflix. It’s a very tightly written show about an Asian-American guy and his high school life. It’s supposed to be a comedy but I wept through the whole thing. I seriously did, because it’s about this emasculation of his identity in high school. Not to get into it too much. So, I started Googling Hasan Minhaj, and I saw this—this is a little digression—I saw this interview with him on the radio, and with these morning DJs. And the morning DJs were kind of slangy, and they would say, “Man, you’re poppin’! And Aziz Ansari is poppin’, and it’s amazing, all of these Indian-American artists are popping. Why is it, it’s weird that it’s all happening right now.” And I thought, oh, I know the answer. It’s because Hart-Celler, 1965—because my parents came over, in this brain drain, and those people’s parents came over in this brain drain, after ’65. And then their kids are now in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and it’s the first time that they’re coming into places of power. When we talk about Fresh Off the Boat—whatever you think of the book, there was the TV show—it was the first TV show with an Asian-American cast in fifteen years. The reason it was made possible is not because the writer is very funny, which he is, but the showrunner, and the exec that gave it the green light at the studios, they were all Asian-American, and they were in the right place at the right time.
Kurt Vonnegut makes this joke, which I thought was very funny—I tried it on the high school kids but they didn’t think it was that funny: “True horror is when you wake up and your graduating class is running the country.” [Laughter] See, you guys get it. Because you start getting older, and, all of a sudden, your cardiologist is your age, or your congressman is your age. But it takes a while for people to come to power, so you get these editors and people coming to power, and English is their first language, and there’s this assimilation thing that’s happening, and you get this big change. There’s this big change from the first to the second generation. I don’t think it’s recognized exactly how these forces of history work, because we don’t think they make a difference. Ning and I would go—Ning is an old friend, we grew up in Ohio. We would come to see things in New York, when we first got here in the late ‘90s. We would look around, and there were no Asian kids. And I would go, “It’s New York City, why are we the only Asian people in the room?” And that is changing, and it has changed. Those rooms are changing, little bit by little bit. But not until recently, and not until people have come into positions of power. I forgot the question now. [Laughter]
Mary Mann is far from bored. Not only was her first book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, published May 16, she’s also been writing and schmoozing like a madwoman.
In New York Magazine’s The Cut, Mary wrote about boredom, marriage, monogamy, and forcing her boyfriend to accompany her to a sex store trivia night. In the piece, she touched on a huge anxiety for many couples:
To call a person boring is hurtful and demeaning. To call a relationship boring, or even to say that you’re experiencing boredom within a relationship, is often seen as the kiss of death. The magazines and books advising you to avoid being boring in bed or in conversation at all costs, the shows and movies that perpetuate this idea that love is a flame that’s either lit or out — all conspire to create a belief that boredom is a kind of pox, and you’re just not as good of a couple once it touches you.
But just because we experience boredom in a relationship, Mary explains, doesn’t mean it’s the end. In fact, it’s pretty normal.
Writing for Slate, Mary tackled a huge question: Can technology solve the 2,500-year-old problem of boredom in the classroom? The reality is, well, a double-edged sword. As Mary writes,
Archer (a professor) was addressing a common conundrum of educational technology: that it can end up contributing to the problem it was created to fix—an “endless feedback loop,” as a frustrated professor I know put it. Classroom distraction doesn’t just come from the phones in students’ pockets; it can also result from the very gadgets invented for the classroom, gamified educational tools that often aid and abet short attention spans by catering to the most restless.
And yes, Mary admits she got bored listening to the professor explaining the very theories she needed to write her own article.
Mary also write a piece for Outside titled “How to Turn Boredom into a Performance Enhancer.” If only it were that easy… Still, as Mary explains, the world’s best endurance athletes get bored, too. But instead of giving up, like us, they push through boredom to find flow, the coveted state of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake”:
It sounds fantastic, but there is a downside: boredom and flow both tend to flourish under the same conditions—an extended period of time devoted to a single activity. Thus, by trying to squash boredom with, say, a good podcast, you’re decreasing the chances of achieving flow.
. . .
But [the sports psychologist] went on to explain that if runners who feel occasional boredom “can make it through those lethal first minutes to the other side,” they might find their mind starting to follow new and unexpected routes. This tracks with recent research finding that boredom actually helps us develop certain positive skills, like creativity and associative thinking. As Black Girls Run co-founder Toni Carey told me, “Running can be a spiritual experience, but I notice that those times when I can feel everything flowing together, every movement connected with my breath, they happen when I’m not running with music.”
Eh, we’ll stick to leisurely walking the treadmill while reading.
And if you still aren’t bored (no, we’re not done making bored jokes yet), Mary published two excerpts of the book online. The first, in Electric Literature, is an essay about how boredom and an enterprising Brit (Thomas Cook) gave birth to the modern tourism industry. And the second excerpt, published in Literary Hub, breaks down boredom in the office place. Finally, Mary did two fantastic interviews with The Atlantic and The Culture Trip.
Check it out, and get a copy of Yawn now!
It’s been a rough year, 2016. So at the beginning of this last full month before the official onset of the apocalypse, we’re grateful at least that everything’s coming up normal. As in Normal, by Warren Ellis. Which is, perhaps, appropriate—Ellis is after all the man now being credited for having predicted Trump, etc, twenty years ago in Transmetropolitan.
But Normal is actually a book of right now. And while we can’t promise that the future now looks incredibly rosy for us humans (and others), there are few bright spots for us to point out: The book made the Indie Next List for December (it’s “1984 meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” says Randy Schiller of Left Bank Books in St Louis—see, rosy!) and one of Amazon’s Best Books of December (“a mind-blowing morsel of paranoia…or prescience” according to Amazon’s Adrian Liang)—and, in fact, one of Amazon’s Top 100 Best Books of the Year!
But for all you internet nerds actually visiting our website, the brightest spot of all is the news that the one and only John Hodgman agreed to lend his dulcet tones to the audiobook edition of Normal.
In 2016, one of FSG Originals’ most ambitious and rewarding challenges was the publication of all four volumes of Lian Hearn’s Tale of Shikanoko across the course of the year. With the publication of Tengu’s Game of Go, the set is now complete. And—just to toot our own horn for a moment, excuse us—it is glorious to behold, utterly gorgeous and deeply satisfying, inside and out.
Mike Roberts is the author of Cannibals in Love, a novel published by FSG Originals in September. Mike spoke with Will Chancellor, the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, at BookCourt in Brooklyn about the sense of paranoia and youth that drives the post-9/11 novel. Conversation then ranged from the import of physical movement in fiction to the underappreciated pitfalls of allegorical novels about cattle.
Sometimes the book is not enough. Through no fault of the author’s own. In fact, in this case, it’s a sign of just how good the book is. Jace Clayton’s Uproot is a guided tour of the global(ized) world of 21st-century music and digital culture. As he introduces us to the Moroccan Berber musicians who pioneered the outer limits of Auto-Tune and Mexican teens revolutionizing EDM by pushing cheap software past its “natural” uses, to Japanese noise artists and Indigenous Australian rappers (and to so, so many more), you can’t help but needing to hear it—even if you’ve already intuited that the good stuff’s not going to be on Spotify or iTunes. But Jace is on the case—with some enterprising use of Soundcloud and assiduous scouring out Youtube, he has been pulling together a deeply satisfying online Listening Guide to Uproot, fully of plenty of listening and even more to read. Join the adventure at uprootbook.com.
If that’s still not enough - if what you want to hear is not just the deep cuts from such an audacious listener’s library but what’s energizing him right now, he’s got you covered there, too, with a brand new mixtape known as the BOOK NRG MIX, just premiered by the The Fader. “Writing is such a strange activity. You sit at your desk for weeks, months on end,” he wrote them in an email. “After all that I needed to dance around and make a summer mix.” Give it a listen here.
If all this makes you just want a taste of the book (what, you haven’t read it yet?), Pitchfork has an excerpt up to help you out. That, perhaps along with a dose of Jace’s conversation with Kimberly Drew (aka @museummammy) from the book launch at Rough Trade in Williamsburg, should do the trick.
Maryse Meijer is the author of Heartbreaker, out today from FSG Originals. In an inversion of the prototypical author interview, here she asks her twin sister, Danielle Meijer, about fantasy, escapism, and finding the perfect reader. Welcome to the Twinterview.