Hazlitt Magazine

'I Like My Values Better': An Interview with Daniel M. Lavery

Talking to the author of Something That May Shock and Discredit You on the pressure put on trans memoirs, leaving the church, and the myth of an unblemished body to be defended.

The Poetic Embassy

What happened when four poets from Franco’s Spain took their show on the road.

'Resist the Things That Give a Story a Familiar Shape': An Interview with Kevin Nguyen

The author of New Waves on the internet, science fiction, and form. 

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‘I Like My Values Better’: An Interview with Daniel M. Lavery

Talking to the author of Something That May Shock and Discredit You on the pressure put on trans memoirs, leaving the church, and the myth of an unblemished body to be defended.

Midway through Something That May Shock and Discredit You (Atria Books), his new memoir-in-essays, Daniel M. Lavery writes: “The really nice thing about imagining yourself as a wife of Henry VIII is that you got to deal with every single male authority figure imaginable all at once, because he was everybody’s god and pope and dad and husband and boss.” This book reckons with many different men as well, whether Arthurian knights, Detective Columbo, the Christian brothers of the Gospel, or the author himself—who put off transitioning for years, an authority figure looming over his own mind, until “I could no longer pretend I wanted nothing.” Lavery still lavishes baroque jokes, like his very earliest pieces at The Toast: one chapter lists “Titles from the On-the-Nose, Po-Faced Transmasculine Memoir I Am Trying Not to Write.” He invokes Byron and Sappho. The flights of language flutter as they shed weight; he describes “permitting collapse, abandoning resistance.” Shortly before the publication of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lavery’s father John Ortberg was suspended from the Bay Area evangelical church where he ministered. Lavery had reported a congregant’s confession of “obsessive sexual feelings about young children” to Pastor Ortberg, who encouraged that person to continue volunteering with minors. Horrified by this moral cowardice, he severed ties with his family of origin. Lavery rushed ahead the wedding to his fiancée Grace, an academic, and they moved across the country to Brooklyn. Forced to revise a long-finished book, in the most agonizing circumstances imaginable, he never lost his élan; one of the passages I cut from our conversation was about the sexiest film incarnation of the Joker (Jack Nicholson, naturally). At the beginning of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, Lavery reconsiders his childhood fascination with the Rapture: “Everyone will be reconciled through peace and pleasure who can possibly stand it.” Chris Randle: I was fascinated by how this book reworks the religious parables and language you grew up with. How did you decide to shape the text that way? Daniel M. Lavery: I thought about this a lot, because I've gotten a variation of this sentiment from most of the interviewers, but it's usually like: "There's a lot of religion in this book. So much." I think that's true, and it's something that surprised me, like, I set out thinking about what I wanted to do with Anne of Green Gables, what I wanted to do with Athena— [t.A.T.u.'s "All the Things She Said" starts blaring through Brooklyn lesbian bar Ginger’s, leaving both parties in awed silence] Wow, I'm so sorry. Let the record stand that I was just transported back to my family computer in the basement circa 2002, illegally torrenting this song. Yeah, I vividly remember hearing this song... there was an "alternative" midnight show on MuchMusic, the Canadian MTV, and I think they played this. That was where I heard "Deceptacon" for the first time. And t.A.T.u. did that MTV Awards thing where they took the stage with a thousand girls dressed up like Spice Girls, and then they all kissed. It was like the lesbian apocalypse. And I definitely watched it on TV in the basement. I'm so sorry [both laugh]. I'm truly sorry. I don't think I've heard this song in 10 years. The last time I heard this song was at a party in a basement, and I was rolling on ecstasy with my friend Mia, we were having feelings. Understandably. So, yeah, the religious stuff felt less deliberate and more like I had too much religion in my head, and any time I start to write about change and vocation and transformation and family relationships the Bible is just there. Even in the chapters that aren't, like, Paul and the Thessalonians, you still end up getting a fair amount of religious content, or Biblical quotations. I think that's because the first time I started thinking of myself as a person who shaped their own life I was incredibly religious, so when I went back and sought to reshape my life in a different way, the Bible was like, "Great, we'll be coming with you." There's also just a lot of—if you wanted to come up with a lot of lovely, poetic, affirming language about transition, you could do worse than the Bible [laughs]. You know, "This is my son in whom I am well pleased." "For all shall be changed and taken up in the blink of an eye." It's all there. I was struck by that G. K. Chesterton quote you use, even though he was a dreadful old reactionary: “In the fairy tale an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone… Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.” Oh, absolutely! I grew up reading Chesterton and he's saying those things, and also fascinated by elves, in the way that a lot of old British reactionaries sometimes are, where they're like, "Oh, I'm so charmed by these creatures." There's also a recurring bitter joke in the book where you're making fun of people who're like—did you ever see those Crimethinc [sic] posters? It was this terrible anarchist group and they had these posters that showed, like, a boy wearing an apron. "Girls can be tough. Boys can be sensitive." Like, great, I knew that. But you still have to— And one thing that's just odd on a logistical level, aprons aren't sensitive. There's nothing sensitive about an apron. Aprons are not a representation of sensitivity. Give him a stuffed bear, or show him reading a romance novel. Sorry, I'm really hung up on that [both laugh]. One of many things I love about Miyazaki movies is that the rules of each fantasy world might seem absurd or nonsensical to the protagonist, but they're internally consistent, even in their own dream-logic way. And the moment of triumph is when that character figures out how to navigate them. I don't want to be like [patronizing nerd voice] "gender works the same way," but... Sure. And that Chesterton bit in Orthodoxy—first of all, it's from a book called Orthodoxy, that's never a great sign. A much more well-known quote from Orthodoxy is: "Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian." The whole bit about daisies gets very sentimental in a way that I don't vibe with. But I do like the way that he thinks about observing a different of rules in the world of the elves. I think it's also easy for people like me to forget or overlook how—I feel like American evangelicals have thought of themselves, at least up until recently, as being apart from the traditional mainline Protestant denominations. Very much so. I remember reading this old essay about Ian Paisley, the ultra-reactionary Ulster Protestant, who loved the really right-wing American evangelicals, and they loved him back. The Ulster Unionists are so nationalistic, so intense about being part of Britain, but my experience is that most people in the rest of Britain look down on them as these embarrassing, violent hicks, and that almost makes them perversely proud, you know? "We're more British than the British." Exactly. I can totally see that. And the other thing is—when I was still part of the church, our church regularly sent mission teams to Scandinavia, I think also the UK. No one would've avowed the white supremacism of that movement, but it was very much like: "Guys, we're losing Europe. Europe! The historical home of Christendom." Which it was not, there was a pretty big region that was the home of Christendom before that. But there was this panicked sense of: We're losing European Christians, and we've gotta get back in there and remind them how great this shit is. And if they dissolved these boring state churches, if they just had exciting evangelical churches, we could win them back. That's how I got to visit Denmark. I saw milk sitting out at room temperature for the first time, it was incredible, like, what kind of world is this. I had a great time. I was raised without any religion, I've only been to church for funerals or weddings, like, the big ones. And it means I don't have the trauma that often comes with a religious upbringing, but there's also this slightly sad knowledge of a pitch you'll never entirely hear. I am ultimately a materialist, but I really admire, like, Walter Benjamin, the people who try to be communist mystics. Do you know his whole "angel of history" passage? No! Benjamin described this angel blown backwards by the storm, who sees history unfolding behind it as an endless series of catastrophes. That's extremely metal. Yeah! It was inspired by this odd-looking Paul Klee painting, where the angel kinda looks like a floppy-haired boy band member... wait, I'll show you... Whoa. Okay, I love that. I love that. Sort of a Timothee Chalamet type. Um, so, there's a recurring theme of self-denial in the book, like: I'm painfully aware of this possibility, which means I know it couldn't possibly fit me... I was going to phrase that as an actual question, but then the bar started playing "Waterloo" and I thought of that scene from The Simpsons and lost my train of thought. Certainly it's not hard to look for self-denial in a religious upbringing. I think the way I experienced it was a sense of whether or not something was possible. It wasn't so much that I thought at that time, "There's a thing I want that I'm withholding from myself," because I don't deserve it or I shouldn't have it or whatever—more a sense of not knowing it was possible, for me in particular. So it wasn't like I had a conscious sense of denial; either I'm very, very good at self-denial, such that I didn't know I was doing it, or there was something else at play. But especially with an evangelical way of relating to the world, which I think can persist even after you stop going to church, it's not always easy to undo or untangle—you're constantly hunting for the next thing that's going to get you closer to God. It's like you seek out the things that will enhance that closeness, and you kind of don't worry about the other things, because if you're hunting that out enough then you're set, you're taken care of. Maybe it was a sense of keeping oneself busy. I think I associate self-denial with, like, Catholicism. The horniest denomination. Yeah. But the flipside of self-denial is the indulgence, and then the relief that comes with confession, there's a cycle there, whereas with evangelicalism you don't get too many of those moments. It's better not to know the things you might want. Better not think too carefully about that. At one point you mention your love of impressions, and a big chunk of the book sort of is one, these pastiches or channelings. I think you hint at this in the text, but why do those appeal to you? Some of it feels a little on-the-nose, like, "Because I could not truly be myself, I must be all these other people." And I'm okay being a little bit cheesy or obvious. But also, even at a really young age, I had an appetite for different kinds of experiences, and Midwestern evangelicalism doesn't necessarily encourage a whole lot of that [laughs], though one way in which it does is through daydreaming, imagination, impressions. That was an outlet that was quickly encouraged by the adults in my life. "Yeah, keep doing that, that's a ton of fun." When I look back, one of the various moments of gender euphoria that I experienced, for lack of a better phrase—when I was nine or ten, I started singing the Gilligan's Island theme song in the voice of Elvis, and all the adults in my life thought it was the funniest thing, to see this little nine-year-old girl singing in an Elvis voice. But I loved that moment, I loved the surprise... inhabiting somebody else's mannerisms felt very exciting, fun. You know how you always say you've got an impression in your back pocket? You start to think of it like an arsenal. "I've got these eight in my back pocket, and I've got these three in my other back pocket, they're not quite there yet. And somehow I'm going to use them all like a series of arias to storm a garrison, or flee a garrison." Before I could ask myself the question am I a boy?, I could ask myself the question: Am I Anne of Green Gables? Am I Elvis? Am I Christian from A Pilgrim's Progress? And you can ask yourself those questions kind of cheekily, which is nice. I also feel like that dovetails with another aspect of the book, which is your quest for a new form of language. Like, there's that passage where you turn these bromides about transition into a Joycean soliloquy, or the entire chapter made up of fake memoir chapters. A flight from cliché, I guess. Yeah. I think that was partly because I felt the desire for cliché rising in me so strongly, so it wasn't, "Everyone around me is saying this and I must put a stop to it" so much as, like, "Fuck I want to say this, and I know that if I do it might secure me in the short term what I think I want from somebody else, but it will also immediately result in a sense of failing to tell the truth about the one thing I really wanted to tell it about.” Which I think to a certain extent is just not possible, but it is also true that every time I lift weights I’m like, “I’m inventing this.” Lifting weights is now a different kind of activity, because I, the only living person in the world, and the only interesting person, have done it. I bring the power and the gayness of, like, Herman Melville, the brawn of millions of years of faggots, we’re all lifting together. You idiots were just picking up iron, but I, I danced. That is in me, I want to do that, and also as I hear myself say that I’m like, boy oh boy, you are being very silly right now, you need to stop being so silly. I know that we’ve talked about this before—I feel like over the past couple of years people have really been rebelling against the tragic/sentimental modes imposed on trans memoir, imposed on any kind of autobiographical writing, really. Do you think there’s a distinctively transmasculine form of comic writing? Grace and I have talked about this, one of the problems is—every trans memoir has to say this one is different from the other trans memoirs, so even in the act of saying “this one’s different” you’re doing the same thing everyone else has ever done. I would say rather that it’s a genre that requires a justification of the tweaks you’re making, each time someone produces a new one. I don’t think it’s anything I’m doing that’s new, I just think I’m doing the same thing in my own way, if that makes sense. I think of it like the conversion narrative, like Paul and the Epistles, there’s a lot that the classic conversion narratives of the early church have in common with the transition narrative, like telling a story. “Here’s what it was like, here’s what happened, here’s what it’s like now.” But yeah, I at least among my transmasculine friends have noticed a lot of comedy, and I think I’ve benefited from it, because those jokes we make among one another have influenced my writing a lot. I’ve always loved Calvin Kasulke’s work, Julian Jarboe’s work, and we’re constantly texting each other stupid ideas about, like, the horse-girl-to-trans-guy transition pipeline. That was one of the things that took me aback the most reading Lou Sullivan’s diaries, how they could’ve been written yesterday, especially in terms of the humour. Especially that relationship to, like: I just saw some boys on TV, and I want to protect them. I wish we were all best friends, and I will save them from the world. That response to some regular-ass guys just playing music on TV, and imbuing them with such depth of emotional intensity they could not possibly have, and swearing “I will protect them,” that’s a very particular flavour of transmasculine energy that I both resonate with and find so embarrassing. Treating the most anodyne straight guys like you are Sam Gamgee and they are Frodo. There are figures of male identification in this book, but they’re definitely not boy-band types. It’s, like, Peter Falk, or rather Columbo, which might not be the same as Peter Falk. And “William Shatner,” which you distinguish from William Shatner the actual human being. Who’s a very mean old person. Yeah, I had a boy band phase when I was in the fifth and sixth grade, but it was in the fifth and sixth grade and it was a phase. I have had a lot of other powerful points of connection, like, old character actors, or moments of grizzledness, certain kinds of intensity. I mean, I’m always going to be a sucker for an impossibly beautiful man of 24 who’s like, “I’ve never had acne in my life, I dance effortlessly and gracefully.” Obviously there’s an appeal there that a lot of different demographics can unite on and say, "This is nice." But yes, boy band masculinity is not for me, I think. You write so well about the gentleness of Columbo, or William Shatner's soft hips. He had wonderfully soft hips and they were so mean and they put him in so many girdles. Relatable, though. By the way, I don't know if you've ever seen this, it didn't make it into the book, but I did write about it later in my newsletter—the very last episode to air of the original Star Trek series, "Turnabout Intruder," is basically autoandrophilia. A former girlfriend of Kirk's is furious and bitter, because of sexism, which drives her insane. She loves and hates him, she loves and hates herself, and she takes over his body for the episode, she tries to kill him in her body. I had this great screenshot that was like, "She has delusions of being Captain Kirk," and just wrote, "Same." It's a very upsetting episode, and it's surprising that it's the last episode of the series, because it's so odd. It's incredibly sexist. It's also weirdly that autoandrophilic sexual fantasy, so it's kind of hot. And then it's sexist again. Just... jarring. I was thinking about that whole forced-masc fantasy the other day, as one does, and it's an interesting contrast with the forced-feminization stuff that's all like, you are a dumb bimbo with no agency. The forced-masc material scrambles dominance and submission in such a funny way. "Oh, you want to clean my gutters, Dad?" [laughs] Well, yeah, obviously there's a degree to which I hope I can be the scholar of forced-masculinization fantasies. If all my work resulted in slightly increased public awareness of the eroticization of transmasculinity, I'll be happy, just because it does away with the old story of the plucky heroine who only binds her breasts out of convenience. And she passes as a boy to defeat sexism, but she's getting nothing out of it! She doesn't even like sex! In Georgette Heyer or Daphne du Maurier or any of those quote-unquote crossdressing fantasies, it's incredibly charged. And so much of the fantasy is about sexual fulfillment through desexualization: "I want you to treat me like a boy. Don't treat me like a girl, but stop treating me like a boy. When you treat me like a boy I feel sexless and humiliated, but when I feel sexless and humiliated I feel thrilled and special. Now we're in trouble." Part of what I remember at a very formative age is, if you're a slightly fluffy-seeming girl-child, they hand you a lot of books, and they hand you a lot of books where a girl disguises herself as a boy. And there's always a fraught older-brother-relationship with some guy who's always like: "You're shit at being a guy. Who the fuck's going to teach you how to do this right, you piece of shit?" Oh my god, they're finally treating me like a boy, I'm being ground underneath someone's heel. I'm nothing, I'm nobody, I'm interchangeable, I'm a block of sand, but also like, yes, spit on me, make me shine your shoes. Let's ride off together on a fucking horse. There's not much to say except there's a lot of it, it's super erotic, and dressing like a boy to get boys' attention is great and everyone should do it. Have you ever seen the Claire Denis film Beau Travail? No! It's her adaptation of Billy Budd, set amidst the French Foreign Legion, and the main character is played by Denis Lavant, who's this kind of goblin-looking character actor. Definitely jolie laide. And the ending, he's lying around shirtless holding a gun and flexing his muscles on his bed. Then there's a jump cut, suddenly he's standing alone in this nightclub, the '90s Eurodance anthem "Rhythm of the Night" comes on, and he increasingly madly tries to maintain his composure dancing to the song. That's what all the forced-masc stuff reminds me of. Really it goes back to Shakespeare, like, "Why am I beguiled by this creature?" ... How do you think about Something That May Shock and Discredit You in relation to the last book? Do you think it anticipated this one? In some ways I feel like this book is more connected to the first one [Texts from Jane Eyre], or it's more of a revisiting of the first one, but pushing further than that book left off. The second book [The Merry Spinster] felt very much in-between. "I don't want to talk about anything directly right now, I don't want to talk about anything representational right now, let's see what happens." It was just a really strange time. I essentially came out because the book was coming out, I was on hormones, and I was really upset about the thought of going on tour and being asked, like, "Do you have a cold?" It felt like I had to make a calculation at that point, and I didn't think I'd be able to pull it off and maintain my composure if somebody was like, "Hey, your skin looks weird." I often associate that book with—I don't revisit it often. I don't go back and pick it up again. But certainly in terms of an arc, to go from The Merry Spinster to the guy [Lord Byron] on the front of this cover—I love it, he's so histrionic, like he's trying to tear his own skin off. He's like: "Auggghhh, I'm going to be 37, shocked and discredited." That actually made me want to ask, why did you choose to honour Lionel Hutz with your title? Lionel Hutz is a pivotal figure. He's a person who only ever falls apart. Right. I think I texted you a while ago, I really identify with how he's blithely confident yet constantly panicking. And it's the only moment in his onscreen appearances where something works for a minute. He actually pulls it off, he successfully manages to convince everyone that he was never wearing a tie. That's his one moment of glory, he's finally able to pull off a lie. I was thinking a lot at the time about physical stress, fraudulence, being exposed as a fraud. I wish you could convey that my tone of voice is a little silly right now [laughs], but that felt like the title immediately, like, obviously we're doing this. Also, I just want to acknowledge that they [Ginger's] have been playing the most baffling mix, and I adore it. This is Shania Twain's weird comeback song. It might be the jukebox, but I don't think people are playing music off that? I think it's a mix, it's gotta be a mix. And I think that mix is going into Spotify and taking, like, gay bar music. I love that whole chapter about so-called "rapid onset gender dysphoria." The "ROGD" makes me think of frogs whenever I see it. It's such a goofy concept! There's a passage where you write: "Any mention of someone's transitioning body sends them into direct and panicked conflict with the prospect of their own transitioning body." You talk about that horror of the flesh. And these people, they so often cite David Cronenberg to express their disgust with any form of medical transition, but they don't get the ambivalence in his movies. Like, if you've seen Videodrome and you think he's suggesting this is very very bad, couldn't possibly be some sort of glorious apotheosis... I love that this is like, "I accuse them of not getting Cronenberg!" [laughter] It's like you're telling them: "You know what else is irreversible? Existing in a human body at all."  Yeah. And to be clear, I'm not claiming they secretly want to transition or something, but yeah, that idea of—I'm sure if you understood transition as something you were tricked into, or that was forced upon you, I can understand why you would view that with horror. If you pay careful attention to the fact that, when people tell you, "I want this very very much, I'm not horrified," and insist that their consent must somehow be compromised... that is silly, and not the kind of silliness I have interest in. The idea that there's some perfect, invulnerable, unblemished body that must be defended and protected at all costs... it's very odd. It's not a perspective that I really understand. And I think it's not an accident that so much of the public anti-trans conversation over the last couple of years has moved to kids, because it's such an easy way to deny people a voice. It's like: "Well, we don't seem to be getting as far as we used to just calling you freaks and monsters." It's so frustrating to come out at 31 and hear: "But what about teenagers?" I don't fucking know any teenagers! Obviously I want trans kids to be able to talk about themselves, but this was literally in conversation with me, and I was like: "I don't know any trans teenagers, and you don't know any either. You know one trans person, and it's me, and I'm in my thirties. I don't know why you're suddenly obsessed with fictional 15-year-olds who might get top surgery. But you're not their relative, you're not their friend, don't worry about them. Let's talk about me." This phantom crew of children being thrown into a top surgery pipeline. Or the focus on an imagined future regret, as if there's any life decision you couldn't potentially regret. Yeah, the idea that the best thing to do in life is imagine future regrets you might have, and then only act in such a way as to avoid them. Absolutely you could sit here and eat crackers until you die. You could 100 percent do that, but it sounds boring as shit.  That's kind of what you're working through across this book. The hedging. Yeah. "How can I not want this thing that I want?" And for me the main shift, the most important shift, was: How do I live my life in such a way that when regret comes I can deal with it appropriately, work through it, find interesting ways to incorporate it in my life? Rather than, "Oh no no, this is the one thing that I must avoid at all costs." Once I was no longer thinking that the worst thing that could happen was me making a decision and later coming to regret it—the real worst thing that could happen is never finding out what I want, never doing anything that pleases me, because I'm so afraid of the possibility of future sadness.  There's this Wittgenstein line that I think about a lot: "If a lion could speak, we would not understand him." Because the lion's frame of reference is so remote and alien from your own, even if he were using the same language mechanically. It almost seems like you had the inverse problem, like, such awareness of and familiarity with the language of transition, people who had transitioned, that it was overwhelming. Yeah, I think so. Yeah. Sorry, I don't have a lot of extra thoughts about that [laughs]. What is your writing process like? Do you and Grace read each other's work? Grace is actually working on a book right now, and she's been showing me each chapter as she goes along. I tend to treat it much more like I'm a vulture and this is my precious, precious carcass. I tend to really hunker over my stuff and not show it until I've completed the first draft, but that's not always the case. And I have a couple of friends here in the city who I like to show my writing to when I can. But the process is kind of classically, you know, wait until the deadline approaches and then write it all as fast as you can. And I've been able to tinker with that over the years, such that I give myself lots and lots of little deadlines, so I'm always turning something in. I should get one of those ergonomic keyboards, probably, I'm always writing in bed. I should take care of my hands and spine. I guess I should also ask about you having to rewrite the book just as it was coming out... I can't even think of any parallel for that. How did it feel? Challenging, for sure. It was the sort of thing where luckily it wasn't most of the book, like it was just really one chapter and then a couple of different moments. But it was very much that something I believed to be true was not true. I was able to see wishful thinking in places where I previously hadn't, and it felt immediately clear to me that I would not be able to stand by any of the things I had written about my family of origin. So I had to change it a couple weeks out from going to press, I'd never made changes to a book that late in my life. My agent and my editor were both incredibly helpful. I hope I never have to do that again! It was very stressful. I was not able to do a lot in the way of rewriting, I did it over two afternoons, it was a total blur. I know that it happened because I have the emails, but I barely remember those days. And I'm really glad that I was able to, I cannot imagine having to tour on the strength of a book that I felt like I had to partially disavow. I have an older advance copy, and I just remember, I think it's the very last chapter, where you said something like, "My father is a very disciplined person." That's why they say "don't quote from advance copies"! Because changes might occur to the manuscript [laughs]. Do you feel like your relationship with religion has changed because of all this? Yeah. I think I have felt at last the freedom to acknowledge that I am not a religious person, as opposed to feeling like I had to equivocate or leave open a certain possibility, because to foreclose that possibility would be to... it's funny, because I had sort of stopped being a religious person in college, but the difference between really committing to that rupture and seeing it all the way through, versus walking some of it back a little bit, just enough around the edges that Christmas is fun... And I feel like I no longer need to defer to the idea that, "Well, whatever we believe, at least we can all agree that we have the same values." We don't have the same values. I like my values better. I don't share them, they're not mine, that's not who I am. I have lots of thoughts and memories and ideas about my particular brand of Christianity that I was raised in, but I'm no longer chasing that dream of being a very good transsexual who's just spiritual enough that Mom and Dad and the Church are finally going to say it's okay to be gay or trans. They're never going to say it, there was no amount of good I could have been, and it's a relief to no longer have to pretend.
The Poetic Embassy

What happened when four poets from Franco’s Spain took their show on the road.

In December 1949, the Franco regime sent four Spanish poets to Latin America as emissaries of what it called a “poetic embassy.” Their mandate was to share their work, the literary fruit of Spain’s National Catholicism, with their Spanish-speaking brethren on the other of the side of the Atlantic. The four poets saw their trip as good-hearted cultural diplomacy, a handshake across an ocean, while the many detractors they would encounter during four eventful months abroad saw only the invasive political propaganda of a foreign dictatorship. The success of the trip, much like a poem, was also open to interpretation. A poet who declined at the last minute to participate in the trip later called it a “rotund failure,” while the regime would spin it as a triumph, in spite of the fact that it ended abruptly because of a political assassination. And yet it was another assassination, carried out more than a decade earlier in dramatically different circumstances, that truly defined the trip—the murder of the poet Federico García Lorca. *** While all four poets came from the victorious Nationalist side of the Spanish Civil War, they weren’t a political monolith. In fact, they were a good reflection of the varied right-wing coalition that had united to defeat the Second Republic, a grab-bag that had included everything from die-hard fascists, to wealthy aristocrats, to Catholic traditionalists. The oldest member of the “embassy” was forty-three-year-old Count Agustín de Foxá, an aristocratic bon vivant and the author of Madrid de Corta a Checa, a novel about a young man’s conversion from right to left during the war. A diplomat posted in Argentina, he was also the biting wit of his generation, known for his celebrated mot, “I’m a count, I’m fat, I smoke cigars, how am I not going to be a right-winger?” Foxá’s complacent, privileged conservatism contrasted with the earnest fascism of thirty-three-year-old Antonio Zubiaurre, a poet and editor who had fought in Russia alongside Nazis during World War II as part of the Blue Division of volunteer soldiers Franco had sent to fight Stalin. Then there was Leopoldo Panero, forty, who had been a communist poet before the outbreak of the war, and friends with such leftist poets as Pablo Neruda and Miguel Hernández. After being imprisoned and narrowly escaping execution by the uprising, he enlisted in Franco’s army as a soldier in order to survive, only to end up being seduced by the mystique of the Falange, Spain’s fascist party. When the trip to Latin America came together, he had just published his first full-length book of poetry, an earthy paean to traditional Spanish values such as god and family. Lastly, there was Luis Rosales, Leopoldo Panero’s best friend since the early 1930s, whose life had also been reshaped by the war. Rosales came from a conservative family; he had joined the uprising from its beginning. Yet in spite of their political differences, Federico García Lorca had been his poetic mentor and friend from long before the outbreak of the war. They were both from Granada, and when rumors began stirring in the city in August 1936 that certain local adherents to the rebellion had it out for Lorca, the Rosales family sheltered the poet. This secret soon got out—allegedly one of Rosales’s brothers informed members of the local rebellion—and made its way to just the wrong person: a vengeful would-be politician named Ramón Ruiz Alonso, who hoped that by erasing Lorca he could buoy himself to higher status in the Falange. With a force of nearly one hundred soldiers, he surrounded the Rosales home and demanded Lorca come out from hiding. The poet was hauled away to jail, only to then vanish. Luis Rosales protested at the military headquarters in Granada, causing a commotion that nearly put his own life in danger. He was sent to the north for the remainder of the war, where he edited a fascist literary magazine and oversaw other literary propaganda. Lorca’s death would leave an indelible mark on Rosales, as it would on the trip to Latin America with his three fellow poets. But before anything else, the men had to leave Spain, which was easier said than done. *** On the morning of December 6th, 1949, the freighter Habana of the Transatlantic Company was preparing to voyage across the Atlantic. But there was a problem. The ship was leaving at mid-day and Leopoldo Panero was nowhere to be found. After setting off a few days earlier from Tarragona, in Catalonia, the Habana had docked in the city of Cadiz, on the southern coast of Spain. Panero and Rosales, taking advantage of this stopover, met up with a group of old friends and launched a bender of epic proportions in nearby Jerez (a city famous for its sherry), drinking themselves from lunch one day until morning the next. Along for the ride was José Caballero Bonald, a twenty-three-year-old aspiring local poet, who had felt a sense of privileged awe the day before when he had been invited to join. Now, with the freighter threatening to unmoor and leave Panero behind, he was part of the search party. Fifty years later, he would recall the crisis and its denouement in his memoirs: After fruitless inquiries, the conclusion was arrived at that possibly he had been held up in a brothel where we had landed late into the night. And there he was, in effect, not in any bed nor in a presumable state of intoxication, but given over to the painstaking delight of a bath. The scene had something of the burlesque to it. Submerged in a washtub, with water up to his waist, Panero remained in a state of ecstasy while two girls of the house judiciously lathered him. When he saw us burst into the bordello—which enjoyed, as wasn’t rare at this time, a certain domestic simulacrum—he raised a stink and refused to leave that place where he was so richly taking pleasure. Rosales finally convinced Panero to get dressed and they raced back to the port just as the crew was preparing to retract the gangplank. Caballero Bonald, who didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, watched the men go, disillusioned by what he had seen. “My naïveté resisted admitting that those two famed poets were just simple mortals entangled in the most ordinary mess.” The Habana steamed off toward its namesake port across the ocean, in Cuba. *** The trip had come about thanks to Panero and Zubiaurre’s former boss at a Francoist thinktank, who was now the Spanish ambassador to Peru. He had convinced the General Directorate of Cultural Relations in Madrid to pony up the money for the tour, which would last three months and include stops in over ten Latin American countries. What no one quite understood at the time was the unique and precarious inflection point in history the four Spaniards were traveling into. The Spanish Civil War had been an emotional, bitterly divisive event not just for Spaniards but for people around the world. It had also been the most literarily dramatized conflict in modern history. As Pablo Neruda would write in his memoirs, “In the history of the intellect there has not been a subject as fertile for poets as the Spanish war.” Ernest Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls and W.H. Auden published Spain, just two of many works by non-Spanish writers that cemented the conflict in the global imagination. Meanwhile, the Spanish writers who managed to survive the war and its aftermath—which, along with Lorca, took the lives of the legendary poets Miguel Hernández and Antonio Machado—fled into exile, most landing in Latin America. Although the Spanish Civil War had ended over a decade ago, memories of its mythic narratives and the nearly half a million lives lost remained strong in the region, especially among leftist governments. Yet its legacy and that of World War II were, geopolitically speaking, giving way to the new rules of the emergent Cold War. The world’s democracies had ceased to position themselves in opposition to fascism, and instead to communism. Yet many communist governments were still fixated on enemies like the Franco dictatorship, since the United States’ heavy-handed interventionism in Latin America was still a few years away. The four hapless Spanish poets found themselves in the crosshairs of this transition. They knew how horrible their country’s civil war had been better than anyone abroad—they had all lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict—but they hoped to heal the wounds of the past through literature. This was especially true of Panero and Rosales, who weren’t Francoist fanatics so much as survivor opportunists. As Panero, a longtime admirer of Latin American poetry, wrote, “We were burning with purity, like a boyfriend who holds, for the first time, the hand of his girlfriend.” The four poets were unprepared for what awaited them. On December 16, the Habana made landfall in the New World—in Hoboken, New Jersey. They were both far from Spain and painfully close, especially Rosales. After the civil war, the Lorca family had emigrated to New York City, where the poet’s parents, brother, sister, and their families had made a new life for themselves. While the Rosales and Lorcas had been friendly in Granada, now the past divided them. The poets knew how close the Lorcas were as they wandered the Hoboken port, but they didn’t visit them—not yet. The poetic ambassadors arrived in Havana just before Christmas and stepped onto the quay. To welcome the Spanish visitors, the leftist press rained down colorful insults: crooked hacks, typists of the Falange, trained amanuenses of Francoist propaganda. At the same time, a handful of prominent Cuban writers came to their defense, such as Dulce María Loynaz. At the dawn of the 1950s, Cuba was whipping left and right. The Soviet Union had opened an embassy in the country in 1943, while American-owned companies invested heavily in the small yet lucrative Caribbean island. Meanwhile, the characters who would unleash the Cuban Revolution a decade later were already converging. In 1948, a twenty-one-year-old Fidel Castro had been in Bogota, Colombia, when the liberal presidential candidate was assassinated, setting off riots in which he participated. That same year, Cubans elected Carlos Príos Sacarrás president, the man dictator Fulgencio Batista would overthrow four years later, who ruled until Fidel Castro in turn overthrew him. [[{"fid":"6706521","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Agustin de Foxa, the daugher of a Spanish diplomat, and Leopoldo Panero at the Mayan Ruins of Copán in Honduras. On Christmas day, the four poets gave their first reading at a civic organization in Havana. Yuletide warmth did not envelope them. Their verses were met by antagonistic whistles from the crowd, followed by airborne eggs. Panero narrowly dodged the ones that came flying his way, only to watch them explode next to him against the Spanish and Haitian ambassadors. Foxá wrote to his mother about the incident, “Communists tried to interrupt…but they were detained and beaten, mainly by Spanish priests and friars, who acquitted themselves heroically.” The crashers of the event were protesting against writers from a fascist dictatorship coming to their island to share their work, but they were especially after one person: Luis Rosales. All throughout Latin America, rumors abounded that, rather than trying to save Lorca, Rosales had been the Brutus to Lorca’s Caesar. As one Cuban newspaper had reported in anticipation of the poets’ arrival as they were still crossing the Atlantic: “Luis Rosales, the ringleader of the mission, was the traitor that deceived the good faith of García Lorca so that he would hide in his home in Granada, from which he took him days later to turn him into the firing squad.” According to Rosales’s son—also named Luis—in the face of these attacks both written and airborne, the poet sent a message through the Spanish embassy in Havana to Lorca’s father, Federico García Rodríguez, asking him to write a letter vouching for his innocence in Lorca’s death. Allegedly, Lorca’s father obliged, though after giving the letter to the Cuban press, Rosales would discover that he should have requested a letter for nearly every country they visited. Despite the contretemps that marred the poets’ first public appearance, they triumphed in other, more receptive venues in Cuba. Before the end of December, their itinerary pushed them onward. The group split in two to cover more ground. Zubiaurre and Foxá went to the Dominican Republic, while Panero and Rosales traveled to Puerto Rico, where they rang in 1950. On New Year’s Day, Panero sent a letter to Rosales’s wife back in Spain that began, “Don’t be afraid.” He wasn’t just offering empty comfort. Puerto Rico was more welcoming than Cuba, as was their next stop, the Dominican Republic, where the four poets reunited. They read to large audiences. While in the Dominican Republic, the men met with Cipriano Rivas Cherif, a Spanish playwright who had been a diplomat for the Republic, only to spend years in Franco’s prisons after the war and narrowly avoid a death sentence. War had once defined them as enemies, but it didn’t prevent this reunion, a nuance of the civil war’s legacy the protesters against the four poets likely didn’t grasp. Both exiles and people who stayed in Spain had lost so much, yet many still retained affection, or at least openness, toward people who had ended up on the opposing side. Now it was as if a familial bond from the lost paradise of the pre-war years transcended divisions, allowing former enemies to fleetingly act like friends again. But such nostalgic encounters were brief. From the Caribbean, the poets continued on to Venezuela. Like Cuba, Venezuela proved a touchy destination. The year before, a military coup had upended three years of democracy and installed a dictatorship. A dissident movement remained in the country, however, and activists showed up at the poets’ reading in Caracas the second week of January. The Spaniards knew there would be demonstrators but were reassured that things would be kept under control. They weren’t. As soon as the event commenced, someone cut the power to the building. In the dark, eggs and tomatoes splattered around them. Gunshots rang out. The poets rushed off the stage. As in Cuba, the primary target was Rosales, who, as Zubiaurre later recalled, “felt intimately hurt.” After they had escaped the melee, Foxá tried to make light of the near-riot with his customary sardonic banter: “We’re going to have to go around with a banner that says, ‘The killers of García Lorca greet their fans.’” Colombia, on the other hand, was an altogether different story. After the violence the previous year, the president had squashed his liberal opponents, and the climate that awaited the poets was enthusiastic. During twenty days, they packed in nonstop readings, with the press calling their tour “an unprecedented success.” The poets met with more Spanish exiles, including an ex-minister of the Republic, then moved north to Panama, where they read for an audience of two thousand. From there it was onto Costa Rica: ovations at one venue, eggs at another. (“They have a marked affinity for omelets,” Foxá quipped to his mother.) Next, Nicaragua, where the Somoza family ruled over the country. They were treated like visiting dignitaries everywhere they went. In spite of its inauspicious start in Cuba, the “poetic embassy” had turned into such a success in the end that the Directorate back in Madrid wanted to extend their itinerary. A Spanish diplomat, José Gallostra, was doing the tricky advance work sorting out their visas to visit in Mexico, which refused to recognize the Franco government. [[{"fid":"6706531","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] A poetry reading in the Dominican Republic. After returning to Havana, the four poets prepared to fly to Mexico. From there, they would continue on to the United States with new stops added in the American south. All the heat and travel and long days, though, was wearing on them. At some point, Panero and Zubiaurre, both known for their tempers, stopped talking to each other. In photos from the trip, the four Spaniards look haggard and under-showered. Then they received shocking news. The Spanish diplomat Gallostra, who was arranging their trip, had been murdered in broad daylight outside his office building in Mexico City. Two point-blank shots to the head “as midday crowds jammed the Paseo de la Reforma,” reported The New York Times. The assassin was a Spanish exile, anarchist, and former soldier for the now vanished Second Republic. The killing of Gallostra and the ensuing diplomatic debacle prompted the Spanish government to discreetly wind down the trip. In Mexico, the four poets quietly boarded the steamer Magllanes bound for New York City, their final stop before setting course for Spain.  *** “Extra human architecture and furious rhythm,” wrote Lorca of New York, where he briefly lived in his twenties, inspiring his famous book Poeta en Nueva York. “Geometry and anguish.” Indeed, it was a strange, painful geometrical alignment of politics and poetry that had brought the poets to New York, where they arranged to meet with members of the Lorca family, who still carried with them great anguish amid the skyscrapers and noise that filled the city. They had put an ocean between themselves and the homeland that had taken their son and other loved ones, but Spain now appeared in the form of three men who hadn’t been forced to leave like them: Panero, Zubiuarre, and Rosales. (Foxá had returned to his diplomatic posting.) They met at a café in mid-town Manhattan. According to Rosales and Zubiaurre, the reunion was warm and cordial. Federico Sr. was present, as was Lorca’s brother Francisco and his wife, Laura de los Ríos (who, as it happened, Panero had been unrequitedly in love with in the 1930s). Rosales gave Lorca’s father papers belonging to his son, and Lorca’s father asked Rosales to help sort out an issue related to a piece of land he still owned in Spain. Yet Francisco and Laura’s daughter, the niece who never got meet her famous poet uncle, later heard a different version of the meeting. “My mother told me years later that it was a tense and upsetting encounter,” she recalled, “but didn’t say anything else.” Perhaps the uncomfortable ambiguity of Zubiaurre’s account best captures what transpired as the Spaniards spoke in the city Federico had immortalized, a world away from the country where they had all been born: “I have the very firm feeling that Lorca [sr.] didn’t consider Luis [Rosales] guilty of anything,” Zubiaurre said. “Of course, he considered him an enemy, but an enemy from the war, nothing else.” An enemy from the war, nothing else—a more incongruous positive assessment of a relationship is hard to imagine, as if the Spanish Civil War hadn’t been an epic fratricide, but rather an unfortunate misunderstanding. It seemed as if the poets who had remained in Spain wished it could be merely that, even as the war’s ghosts had pursued them their entire trip. In early March 1950, the Magllanes docked in cold, foggy Galicia. The economic rewards for the poets’ three-month odyssey were meager. To supplement his payment for participating in the trip, Panero brought back contraband to sell on the estraperlo, the Spanish black market: transistor radios, scarves, tights. His spiritual rewards, however, were greater, he claimed. “How glad I am to have done that trip, precisely that one and not another,” he later wrote. “By way of pain, everything so difficult, so Spanishly difficult, so face to face with the truth!” Yet this “truth” would be offered as an explanation for how the experience swung him further to the right on returning to Spain, leading him a few years later to write a book of fiery fascist poetry that was a hate letter of sorts to his former friend, the communist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. This reactionary book would end up marring Panero’s reputation in the coming decade as Spain’s intelligentsia began straying from Franco, including Luis Rosales. For the poet from Granada who had provoked so much outrage in Latin America, Lorca’s death would hang over him for the rest of his life, and hang over his son’s life, too. “What happened to Lorca continues to be a nightmare,” Rosales’s son said in 2016, despondent over how Lorca’s assassination eclipsed everything else his father wrote and did, much the way it had done to the travels—and travails—of the “poetic embassy” over half a century earlier. In the latter half of his life, Luis Rosales toiled away on a projected four-book poetic opus that aimed to be the culmination of a life dedicated to verse. He never finished the fourth book of the cycle, New York Despues de Muerto (New York After Death), a journey through the city of geometry and anguish that Rosales imagined taking with his dead friend Federico. This last book was inspired by his 1950 visit to New York and the feelings it had left in him. Whether the “poetic embassy” to the Americas had been a success or not no longer mattered, if it ever had. It had revealed the persistence of the dead, who could not be brought back even through that powerful human creation that has always served as a hedge against eternity—the written word. “People who don’t know pain are like churches that haven’t been blessed,” Rosales wrote in a book he published shortly before leaving for Latin America. If that was truly what he believed, then he was blessed, abundantly, by the curse of the death of Federico García Lorca.
‘Resist the Things That Give a Story a Familiar Shape’: An Interview with Kevin Nguyen

The author of New Waves on the internet, science fiction, and form. 

New Waves (One World), the debut novel from features editor for The Verge, Kevin Nguyen, is millennial in every way. The protagonist, Lucas, a Vietnamese dude, ends up working customer service at a tech job (relatable) where everyone assumes he is an engineer. He clings to his friendship with Margo, a vibrant, no-shit-taking Black woman at the company. Nguyen writes brilliantly of identity, never assuming an oppressive narrative on his characters, but furthering the complexity of their humanity. He weaves a deft story exploring capitalism, race, gender, underground online communities, and the startling shift in privacy and technology itself. With New Waves, Nguyen has ambitiously reshaped traditional forms of the novel, diversified characters, and addressed technology for all its good, as well as all its bad. Sruti Islam: Has writing a novel has always been on the horizon for you?  Kevin Nguyen: It’s kind of an annoying origin story because the entire thing is kind of very haphazard. I mean, if we even just take a step back—I always wanted to write and edit. I never thought I’d get to be able to do it professionally in journalism. That idea felt very far away from me, as did writing a novel. But basically, I get kind of anxious on the subway, and I write on my phone a lot when there’s not enough space to read a book.   There was this time in my life where I just didn’t have any assignments—this is before I was working professionally, so I was jotting down whatever into my notes app. You know, like, some imagined dialogue, stories I wanted to write, some things that happened at work, and loose concepts for funny sci-fi stories. I just put it all on the same note, and eventually the note got so long that the app crashed. So, I went to my computer and I copied and pasted out of the notes app into a Google doc, and it turns out I’d written something like 20,000 words. And at first, I was like, “What have you been wasting your time doing? Twenty thousand useless words!” And then I kind of read through it all, and it really was a mess, but I just kind of sensed that there was an interesting through line through all of it. So that kind of became the foundation of the novel. You can see it in the book, too. Structurally, the book is a bit all over the place. Which I kind of love about it. But you can see how it started out as a bunch of loose ideas in an app. The book isn't driven by some massive plot chase, but readers will find themselves compulsively turning the page regardless. Were you intending to play more with time or format?   When I started writing it as a more extended work of fiction, I started writing around the form more deliberately. But I’m actually glad that you point that out, because I think that was the biggest challenge for me. I just like when things are kind of high-concept and then executed as boring and slowly as possible—you know, I like things that are plotless. I think at the beginning the book kind of poses that there will be a bit of a plot, but it moves away from that quite quickly. It tells the reader that it’s not going to be a mystery pretty early on. And I think that the things that are happening in the book are constantly resisting plot, and it kind of mirrors Lucas’s journey, and in some ways Jill’s. But both are in search of a narrative structure to grief, and it doesn’t exist. They keep trying to do things to try to find that plot for themselves, and it just keeps not happening. So that was a challenge for me. I wanted something that would read quickly—I like books that also read quickly, which still resist the things that give a story a familiar shape. I spent a lot of time thinking about that, so I actually really appreciate you bringing that up first. Definitely. I mean, it’s such a shift in form. The climax happens in the first couple of pages, and the whole thing ends on a kind of new beginning. How did you map out the writing of this book from beginning to end? I didn’t really outline the book at all. I didn’t really have an ending in mind when I started. So, it was a lot of rearranging. I think earlier drafts were a lot more convoluted, it jumped back and forth in time a lot more. The more I moved away from a conventional structure, the better the book worked, I think. It’s kind of funny, I know it’s going to frustrate a lot of readers. I understand that. A lot of people are just not going to like that, just the way it kind of moves all over the place. But I just like the structure of a story that serves as a kind of spiral. It just keeps going around, zeroing in on something slowly and kind of circuitously. It’s a book with a lot of disparate ideas and themes going on. And I wanted those things to slowly tie together indirectly. I applaud your construction of all these varied ethnicities. My question is in relation to that Zadie Smith essay about who gets to write fiction, and then in thinking about the American Dirt stuff… Personally, I feel like New Waves is the correct response in that debate. It’s clear that it was important to you as an author to write with love and care for your characters, but there never felt like a voyeuristic betrayal. But that does not seem like an easy thing to accomplish—how did you do it? [laughs] Honestly, it was less deliberate than wanting to go out there and do this version of this thing right. I just wanted to write characters that I was interested in. I was also just very interested in a story about a friendship between people who look different and who have different experiences. Because, as you know, you’re a person of colour, that’s just what our lives are. It’s very rarely reflected in literature specifically, which I always find very odd, because I feel like literature is usually pretty far ahead of all the other mediums. So, I guess I’ll just start by saying that I think there are a lot of people out there who believe that you shouldn’t write an experience that’s not your own. And I actually understand that argument. I think there is a case to be made for that. I just personally feel like, if those are the rules, then you’ll just never get a book where an Asian man and a Black woman are friends, and that’s a way darker outcome to me. Obviously writing Lucas was easier than writing Margo, which went outside of my personal experience, even though I have lots of friends with similar experiences. But I think the secret was to make her as specific as possible. The book deals with race and racism, but these characters are not stand-ins for a bigger conversation. They’re just having their conversation. Again, Margo is an extremely specific character with an extremely specific personality and specific interests. So even though Blackness is at the center of a lot of her personality, it’s not the only part of her personality. And that was really important to me in writing characters who look different. I do understand that there’s a reality where there will be readers who do not like my portrayal of a Black woman and that’s totally fair criticism. I think it’s a very fair response. There’s this tendency with writers to have great affection for the characters they create. Is that also the case for you? That’s an interesting question. I think they’re all extremely flawed. And their flaws are loud, too. It’s funny because I knew this would happen. Where, because the point of view of character was an Asian man, people would just kind of draw this line between me and Lucas. Which is always kind of funny because I would never make decisions as bad as Lucas does [laughs]. He’s kind of a dumb fuck? [both laugh] Oh yeah, I’m going to get to that. But you know, there’s bits of myself in all the characters. Those parallels are just a little less obvious. Right, but I don’t mean that you’re similar to them, it just seems like you created them with care, flaws and all. Yeah, I think that’s true. I think I like Margo the most if I’m ranking them. It’s interesting, too, because in earlier versions of this book, I think the characters were even more unlikeable. And that softens over time through a few editors. The original version of it had three screw ups, and I don’t think it quite reads that way anymore, which I think is for the best. And I do find myself thinking about these characters a lot. It always sounded cheesy every time I heard an author say that, but then I tried my hand at this myself and realized, oh yes, I’ve spent a lot of time with these people. It feels like family, you just kind of have to love them, and you just do. It’s interesting that you point out these characters began more unlikeable than they ended up. Is it true what they say—is writing unlikeable characters just much more fun? I think that’s right. It’s fun and intellectually more rigorous and interesting. I don’t think any character in the book comes across as super well in many ways, and I think it would be boring if they did. Were you on LiveJournal? I never had LiveJournal, but I was definitely on a lot of blogging platforms. A lot of internet forums. I think in the era of LiveJournal I was probably on music forums, which kind of has the same energy, right? The same kind of community. These sites don’t actually look that different. Do you think that participation informed you as a writer? Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve just been writing for a long time in non-professional capacities. I think that writing is just this thing, where a lot of effort and talent is involved, for sure, but is just something you have to do for a while before you figure any of it out. You know, you can sort of tell when people have only ever written in school. There’s just a level that we just can’t crack. It’s kind of amazing. I also miss that era where you were just intimate with strangers on the internet, we were all faceless, this was an era we were still using anonymous handles, we were discovering weird new music this way, and it just doesn’t quite happen that way anymore.    What do you think it was about these online communities that fostered such an intimacy, and why is Twitter a total failure at replicating it? [laughs] It’s funny because I don’t want to be totally pro-anonymity because I think we live in an era with a lot of trolling, but it was sort of before coordinated harassment was a thing that happened all the time. The anonymity of these places just felt a little bit freer. One thing that I put in the book was that when I was in middle school I would get bullied all the time basically just for being Asian and not realizing that that’s what was going on. And then I would be on these internet forums, and it’s not that I wasn’t proud of being Vietnamese American but you just didn’t have to be on these forums? You didn’t have to identify as that. And you play into these other hierarchies on these internet forums, but it just momentarily unburdens you of your identity. Here’s a community where you don’t have to be this thing. Absolutely. I just think it’s kind of interesting. You really form your identity from the ground up on the internet. Right, there were no follow-up “How do you pronounce or spell your name again?” questions happening. You just had this username that stood in for all that. In the novel you create this app, Phantom, and the appeal of this app is that it ensures that your posts disappear in real-life time after sending them. You have this great paragraph where you compare the app’s commercial success to its real-life appeal, you say, “It’s like having a conversation in real time.” Okay, so my chill question is, why do you think tech thrives on recreating the real? Why isn’t the real enough? That’s interesting. Because… it’s harder to monetize, honestly. [laughs] That’s the real driver of all technology, honestly. We’ve actually found just every quiet little moment to make money off of. Every breath we take now is being used by Google to target ads towards us. I don’t think it’s a cool, wholesome thing, it’s just literally capitalism creeping into every quiet moment of our lives.  Right. I feel so dumb as a consumer. Does it not just make you feel dumb?  Yeah! It feels stupid that we didn’t always realize the internet was going to become this? We just accelerated capitalism. You’ve kind of alluded to this already. I think it’s pretty clear that Lucas doesn’t treat Jill great, and I wonder if as a man it’s fun to write the character of an immature male, or painful? Oh, it was definitely painful. I mean, consider Lucas’s journey, right. He’s this guy who’s sort of felt powerless his whole life as an Asian American man and he doesn’t have a fancy education. And throughout the book he begins slowly accumulating power, but never realizes it. Which I think is the way a lot of dumb fuck boys act in New York. It’s a book where I wanted all the consequences of people’s bad decisions (of which there are many in the book) to be emotional. I think Lucas realizes everything all at once, not really when it’s happening. He has this revelation where it all kind of hits him at once. And I think it’s interesting because as your lives change, particularly in the workplace, there’s never a point where someone’s like, “By the way, you have power now,” so I think it’s sort of easy for a character like Lucas, and also a lot of men Lucas’s age who have felt disenfranchised for a longtime, to just not engage with the power they have. The novel is interspersed with these various science-fiction stories. The reader eventually learns of their source. Was that your way of writing science-fiction without having any stakes to it, by positioning fiction within a work of fiction? Or was it an intentional challenge, to see how you would do with science-fiction?   It was a couple of things. You get to know characters in a book by what they do and what they say. And I just like the idea of understanding a character through their active generation. Like, can you understand a character by what they create? I thought that was a pretty cool challenge because I had not seen that done before. Also, just that the readers experience would mirror Lucas and Jill’s, in that they too would learn about a person based on this generation. So that would parallel between the characters in the book and the readers themselves. But also, in terms of actually writing the science-fiction stories, there was a time where I was reading a lot of Robert Sheckley. He was this sci-fi writer in the ‘60s. He wrote for those pulp-y sci-fi magazines, and all the stories are pretty funny, kind of cool, and they all have these plot twists at the end of them. And I just thought that would be pretty fun to write. I really thought of the science-fiction stories more so as an exercise in humour than as an attempt for smart science-fiction. Maybe the next book will be purely science-fiction? [laughs] No, I don’t think so. I do like the idea of speculative fiction, but more historically. That interests me more than something set in space.
‘Passivity as a Mechanism for Harm’: An Interview with Jessi Jezewska Stevens

The author of The Exhibition of Persephone Q on navigating the early internet, the absence of ambition, and identity crises both large and small. 

“Candid pupil,” writes Maria Edgeworth in An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification, “you will readily accede to my first and fundamental axiom—that a lady can do no wrong.” This epigraph of Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s debut novel sets the tone: The Exhibition of Persephone Q (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) will be a study in self-delusion. Percy is pregnant and can’t seem to bring herself to tell her husband. She spends her nights drifting through a Manhattan recently devastated by 9/11, paying visits to her psychic and working for the self-help author down the hall. Fleeing questions of identity, her own violent impulses, and the future child known only as the nebula, Percy is unmoored until the day she receives a catalogue for her ex-fiancé’s art show. The titular exhibition—a series of digitally altered photographs that show the same nude woman sleeping on a bed as the objects around her, and the New York City skyline through the window, are slowly removed—acts as catalyst. The photos are of Percy, she’s sure of it, even if they fly in the face of everything she thinks she knows of herself. Her mission is now the ostensibly simple task of being believed.  The Exhibition of Persephone Q is an intimate, precise first novel, in turns funny and unsparing. Alyssa Favreau: The novel opens with three simultaneous events. There’s a moment of sexual incompatibility, Percy’s unsuccessful attempt at asphyxiating her husband Misha, and a pregnancy. Why place all these incidents so firmly in the body? Jessi Jezewska Stevens: I’ve been interested in the way that our frustrations with the systems in which we are embedded can manifest very physically, and possibly manifest more truthfully in a physical way than consciously, even. That perhaps there are certain moments in our lives where there’s more truth to the way we are expressing our confusions and frustrations in our bodily experience than how we might be able to articulate them in words. Certainly this seems to be true for Percy, who at least at the beginning of the book is especially in denial about her life, about her marriage, about becoming a mother. She’s going through all these changes, and so she’s retreating in the way you have to do to protect your delusions. We learn much more about Percy as the story unfolds, and it is as if she’s learning about herself at the same time. Why separate her backstory so formally? It occupies its own section.  That comes partly from intention and partly the process of problem solving over the course of structuring a novel. It felt important to protect Percy’s ability to be in denial about the changes in her life until the end of the novel. In some ways that became a formal constraint. It also seems more truthful to the character at that moment, to have a bit of amnesia about the person that she’s been.  Thematically I was also interested in a kind of American condition that promises the right to reinvent oneself. For good and for bad. The idea that you can reinvent yourself is a cultural value, sort of a dream in this country, and it does rest on a great deal of forgetting. So I was also thinking of the ways in which that translates into a kind of willful amnesia. You do seem particularly interested in the question of myth making, of creating or reclaiming narrative in one’s life. In a way, I think of the idea of withholding Percy’s origin story until so late in the book as a second Exhibition of Persephone Q. There’s the literal exhibition in the book, in which Percy believes herself to be a woman in a series of intimate pictures. She is a passive character in that narrative, so I was thinking about having a second “exhibition” told in her voice. It’s possible that she could be trying to make meaning in telling that story. Or maybe another way of saying the same thing is that she reaches a certain breaking point where it becomes impossible to continue to be in denial about the person that she’s been, the people that she loves now, the mother that she might become. Speaking of being forced out of a comfort zone, out of a feeling of safety, why choose a post-9/11 Manhattan as the backdrop for this story? Questions of identity—of the narrative that one has of oneself versus the narrative others might have, and how tensions arise when those narratives come into conflict—are very central to the book. I didn’t set out to write a historical novel, but you are looking for those settings that amplify the questions you are interested in. I felt that on a national level, those questions of identity and being forced to answer the questions of “who am I?” and “do I recognize myself?” were questions that were very much present and urgent right after 9/11. I started writing this book during the 2016 election, when those questions—though they had always been urgent—came again very much to the forefront of national conversation. My hope was that in setting the book after 9/11 I would amplify those concerns, but in a way that felt very contemporary. By including characters who are experiencing the internet in a very early, web 1.0 kind of way, were you hoping more broadly for the reader to bring a modern set of references to the story? Absolutely. I hope that there are jokes to be enjoyed in returning to a slightly internet-illiterate narrator circa 2001. The contemporary reader has so much foresight when reading about Misha’s involvement in algorithmic advertising, right? We all understand today how this is going to fundamentally change not just commerce, not just the way we use the internet, but also another dominant narrative for what identity is: A set of algorithms. To the extent that there is a bit of history of the internet in the book, it is very much written for contemporary readers. Misha doesn’t feel especially comfortable with his own involvement with online advertising. It’s quite likely that he’s the sort of person who’s going to sell off all his shares before internet advertising becomes the next big thing. His anxiety there is very much a bit of a joke for the contemporary reader. It really endeared both characters to me, that their internet usage is so dated, and Misha’s worried about things like data collection and surveillance but has no idea how pressing those concerns are going to be in even ten years’ time. It was cute.   I know, and also a little bit sad too. When the Patriot Act happened we were all worried about phones being tapped, which was a real concern right? But then of course today we fast forward and now you send an email to someone and your banner ads immediately reflect the subject line of whatever you just sent. What lessons can be learned from the mythological Persephone, the one that Percy calls “original Persephone”? I was very struck by this idea of existing in two worlds, having a kind of split life or split self. That was what most interested me in building in the mythical references throughout the story, the extent to which Percy appears to be living a private reality separated from consensus reality. It does seem like she’s in a dreamland, both because the routines of the city have been so disrupted and because she doesn’t sleep at night and goes wandering. There’s that hint of surrealism. Right, and almost a kind of night world, or underworld, quality to the way that her sleep schedule flips at the beginning of the book in her effort to protect Misha from herself. Her impulse to pinch Misha’s nose and suffocate him a little bit is something she herself doesn’t seem to understand or recognize, so again there’s that idea of lacking self-recognition, or the unknowability of the self. There are latent capacities for violence in all of us. Percy buys knives, and to me there was a bit of a joke in the idea that she would be armed for most of the novel, and that she’s walking around the city on an errand to return these knives and gets very sidetracked. Because of Percy’s passiveness, it’s interesting that she is actually capable of harming others. Maybe the isolation she feels is also a way of denying that she has the capacity to affect others. Absolutely, and passivity itself as a mechanism for harm is something that is reflected in the pictures. Here is this inert figure on the bed even as there’s this enormous destruction represented around her in the room and out the window. That resonates with the harmfulness of Percy’s passivity in her own world. There’s a real invocation of the symbol of the passive woman. From the long lineage of sleeping women in art to references to the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, why were you drawn to that iconography?   I was aware of the danger of writing a passive female character. One of the interesting things about Percy to me was that she was someone without ambition. I would like it to be possible to write in a way where we can acknowledge these tropes, of the passive woman or the exploited woman in art, but also reclaim them. And even be able to reclaim them in an impish way, where I get to make jokes about it. I hope that the way these tropes come up in Percy’s character, or in the works of art that she encounters, that they aren’t presented passively, that we can see around them, into the idea that when women were represented that way, much was missed.  What does it mean to you that Percy’s main goal isn’t to have the exhibit taken down, but to simply be believed when she says that the photographs are of her?  I thought that was a much more interesting story. It was more interesting to me that Percy would eventually become more offended by the idea that people wouldn’t believe her—and in not believing her, would in a way be rejecting a certain narrative of self that she’s presenting. The novel’s full of very disparate selves. There are the Percys that have her same name on the internet, the versions of her that Misha knows, that the fiancé knew. Is there ever a true self to come back to? I think there’s a kind of a moving average, if you will. I do think that the self is not really a constant, and maybe that’s one reason why all of these different selves are reflected throughout the book. There can be a sense of home or of belonging, but I don’t believe that there is a real, static self. Why have Percy undergoing such an important change? Her impending role as a mother casts a long shadow over the story. From part one to part three, we perhaps feel slightly more confident in Percy’s ability to take care of her child. She begins to enter relationships of care toward others in a way that takes on responsibility. That shift to me relates to the idea of intimacy, of recognizing it in her life and reciprocating it. It makes sense that this transition away from denial and selfishness dovetails with a move towards a greater intimacy, and the nebula becoming a little less… nebulous. Yeah, there’s a scene where Percy wonders if she has perhaps lost Misha. She’s on the street and directly addresses the nebula for the very first time, and says, “It might just be us.” That’s also true, that her relationship with the nebula, i.e. her child, also forces her to recognize her own capacity for intimacy. I read your essay “How to Buy a Rock” and was particularly struck by the line “if matters of the heart are constantly in flux then it seems to me one has to make the decision to stay in love again and again.” Do you see elements of that play out in Percy and Misha’s marriage?   Absolutely, I think that Percy makes that decision by the end. Misha would have every right at this point to choose otherwise, but seems to have made that decision once more. You asked whether there is a stable, or static self, and I’m not sure there is. If that’s true then between two people, if you are both in flux, you do continue to make the choice to be together as you’re continually becoming new people. I don’t find this to be a cynical outlook. I don’t want the book to seem ultimately cynical about love. I think that there can be something beautiful in that idea of things being constantly new. How did the titular art show first come to you?   I have genuinely always disliked posing for pictures, or having my picture taken, so probably a little bit of my own dislike. It comes down to the question of what kind of event would force Percy to confront her own denial, or make it impossible for her continue as she’s been. She has an uncomfortable relationship to the pictures too in that there’s something exploitative in them, but she recognizes that there are also elements of tenderness. It’s a complicated response that arises from that tension between her fiancé’s presentation of her and how she sees herself. It is perhaps a gain in perspective. Because of those complications, it makes it difficult at times to gauge how reliable Percy is as a narrator as she struggles to hold onto her life and her story. By the end of the novel, is there still that same uncertainty? I felt very consciously that I was going to begin a novel as a mystery but not necessarily write a mystery novel, and not necessarily solve the mystery. The last line of the book introduces some ambiguity about even the realism of the story that was just told. To what extent does Percy feel like a made, or written, character, and to what extent does it feel like someone directly addressing the reader with a personal story? I was interested in that ambiguity especially because the novel, with this exhibition at the centre, is presenting the madeness of narratives. Certain choices that I made, such as the name Percy Q, draw attention to the fact that in some ways this feels like a very made up story, that it feels very crafted. Percy Q feels like a very made up name. When I’m thinking of the effect of those choices, of having a metafictional awareness, I suppose it invites readings that approach this as an analogy or a fable, or something explicitly made in service of some other aim, rather than someone confessing a true story.
The Game Inside the Game

The NBA halftime show is a kind of Trojan horse—a secret, strange venue for performance art, hidden at the centre of one of our most mainstream entertainment juggernauts.

I got into basketball the way some people get into drugs or religion: during a bad time, as a means of cheap transcendence. This was a few years ago, in the middle of a dark and difficult winter, when I was feeling particularly vulnerable—deep in the kind of permeable, thin-skinned state that best primes a person to join a cult. Instead, I went to a Toronto Raptors game. My boyfriend, a lifelong NBA fan, had acquired two tickets and gently suggested that maybe I could use a trip outside the house. Walking up the steep stairs to our cheap seats, I remember feeling terrified of the height, certain I was going to fall backwards and roll off the edge of the balcony to my death. When we sat down I white-knuckled the back of the seat in front of me, my vision darting nervously around the arena, until suddenly I clocked the hardwood and something clicked into place. Once I was looking at the court, the scale of everything around me seemed to telescope and shift. My view of the game anchored my attention so completely that everything else in the stadium fell away. Most big arenas, of course, are designed like this on purpose, so that you can see what’s happening with relative clarity no matter how high up you are. But in that moment, I felt less like I was experiencing a standard architectural feature and more like I was at the centre of an astounding manipulation of dimension and scale. For a minute, I forgot how high up I was, forgot to be nervous about it—forgot, for the first time in forever, to be scared of anything at all. This simple collapse of distance had done what weeks of deep breathing and doubled-up therapy sessions couldn’t: it had sorted my sprawling attention into a single, focused order. Magic, I thought. But real. Once I was primed for revelation I caught it everywhere: in the balletic slope and speed of play, the psychic qualities of good passing, the emotional weather of the crowd. I was enthralled, too, by the structure of the game—not just when the players were playing, but the little interstitial skits and videos that came on at every time out. The whole night was an overstimulating, overwhelming spectacle, and I loved every part of it: the teens pitching T-shirts past my head, the big inflatable mascot trying to eat the security guard, the noise meter, "Kickstart My Heart," the Kiss Cam. The Raptor running across the court, the Raptor waving a flag, the Raptor banging a drum. By halftime, I was fully converted. When the buzzer sounded for the end of the second quarter, everyone around me jumped up out of their seats, headed for popcorn and beer and the bathroom. As I stood up to let the people in my row move past me, I looked around and felt struck by the same vertiginous terror that had hit when I first came up the stairs. Gripping the cold plastic back of my bright blue seat, I tried to keep my attention anchored on the court. For a few seconds it was empty, and then, gradually, I noticed a group of twelve-year-old girls gathering on the periphery. The announcer asked us to please welcome them, a local youth rec league who would be playing a game on the court for our halftime entertainment. There was a tiny smattering of applause. The girls ran out onto the court, ponytails swinging like pendulums. At this point my boyfriend and I were the only people still sitting in our section. Together, we watched the girls pass and post each other up, shooting layups and three-pointers from the same positions where, just minutes ago, a crew of world-famous seven-foot-tall millionaires had been doing the same thing. It was as if, during the intermission of a Broadway show, a community theatre troupe got to come up onto the stage and do their own short play. I felt a whole new dimension added to the wonder I’d felt all the way through the game’s first half; something to do with scale and size, significance. I didn’t understand how people could be missing this part of the game. It seemed as important as any other—essential to the structure of the spectacle it was nested inside. I stayed glued to my seat until the game inside the game was over.  *** Halftime is a literal sideshow, a cute little feature at the centre of the real event. Most people don’t think about it much, so it’s difficult to find a lot of concrete information about its history. The shows started getting really good circa the late ’70s-early ’80s, when the beleaguered NBA was suffering from such low viewership that even the finals aired on a tape delay. Some franchise owners decided to inject a little circus-style showmanship into their games, making halftime a little more bombastic than the plodding gameplay that surrounded it. If you didn’t care about a bunch of guys trying to get a ball through a hoop, the logic went, perhaps you might still enjoy watching a local radio DJ wrestle a bear. The contemporary halftime show retains this scrappy, slightly vintage energy, even as the game has changed radically around it. A typical performance (usually about seven minutes of the break’s total fifteen) has the anarchic, analog feel of public access television or a community talent show; there’s something about the format that seems to almost physically repel anything too fancy. If you Google “worst NBA halftime show” you’ll see a wide range of tragicomic turns by artists who have some degree of fame outside the stadium: Ja Rule’s viral flameout at a Bucks game last year, or 21 Savage, who played a Hawks game where his voice was so woefully out of sync with the backing track that his performance looked and sounded like a Shreds video. You can’t help but feel a little bad for these guys, who seem used to playing in places with sound systems that work, for crowds who bought tickets to see them. Conversely, the halftime performers who look most professional and in charge of their shit are the ones who seem most accustomed to performing on a tarp—working against an echoing sound system, directing their energy at a sea of empty seats. Most of these acts fall into one of a few general categories: - Kids and teens. School band recitals, dance performances, youth rec league basketball games. These are incredibly common, ostensibly because there is never any shortage of young people willing to play a basketball game for free. (Also, though they don’t always perform at halftime, I feel compelled to mention that the Raptors have an in-house youth dance crew called the LIL BALLAS who often perform to a medley of Drake’s greatest hits with one young child at the front dressed up in full Aubrey Graham drag, like with a penciled-on beard and everything. Few things are so simultaneously charming and stressful to watch.) - Musical performances. At the All-Star Game you might get an actually famous musician, but for the most part these tend to be the kinds of performances you’d see at a county fair or Buskerfest: Hawaiian Soundcloud rappers, 13-year-old novelty violinists who play so fast you can’t even tell if they’re good or not, that kind of thing. - Audience participation. Pretty standard stuff—your baby races, your creepy “professional Simon Says caller”s, your free throw contests, etc. - Dance crews. God’s most perfect form of entertainment. - Talent show-style acrobats. People with names like Rubberboy or the Human Slinky, people with entertaining pets, people doing handstands and precarious balancing on all kinds of equipment. There’s a lot of crossover between the performers in this category and high-ranking contestants from the TV show America’s Got Talent; the acts tend to have either the hair-sprayed perkiness of a figure skating performance or the campy, over-the-top masculinity of peak professional wrestling.  Almost every dedicated NBA fan has a favourite halftime performer, and almost all of them are drawn from this pool. I’ve told a few of my basketball-loving friends I’m working on this piece, and almost all of them have asked me whether I’m going to talk about their favourite act: the quick-change couple, or the woman who does a handstand on two canes, grips a pole with her mouth and shoots a bow and arrow with her feet, or the “human flag,” or the chair-stacking guy, or the dude with the chihuahua that crawls all over him while he does handstands on a pair of basketballs, or the mime who climbs the really crazy ladder. One friend asked me whether I was going to talk about “the speed painter,” and when I asked whether she meant the man I’d recently watched whip together a Nelson Mandela portrait in a performance that looked like Criss Angel doing Stomp by way of Bob Ross, she said No, I mean the guy who does that while singing. (Turns out there are at least three speed painters currently working the halftime circuit.)  The most popular and well-known NBA halftime performer is a woman named Rong Niu, who goes by the stage name Red Panda. She was born into a family of performers, spent her childhood in China attending a “boarding school for acrobats,” and has been doing the same act for nearly 30 years now. It is entirely useless for me to describe her performance when you are a single click away from watching it yourself, but just in case you can’t currently watch video, I’ll try.  Red Panda begins her act by riding a seven-foot-tall unicycle out into the middle of the court, where she balances for a few seconds next to an assistant (often, delightfully, a mascot), who begins to toss her some bowls. Once she has a couple in hand, she sticks out a leg, points her toes, and begins stacking the bowls up her leg—one upside-down, the next right-side up on top of it and so on, so they form a kind of tower. Then, with a single kick, she flips them up into the air where they land in a perfect stack on top of her head. Keeping the stack perfectly balanced, she gets some more bowls from the mascot, and stacks more and more of them up her leg, kick-flipping them into the pre-existing stack. By the end of her performance, she is often balancing ten bowls on her head while stacking another five up her leg. When she flips them, it’s genuinely astounding—a feat that seems so impossible you forget to wonder why she’s doing it in the first place.  Red Panda’s act is one of the few halftime shows that consistently kills—there’s real tension in it, heavy drama. Audiences actually stay in their seats for it, much to the chagrin of arena staff. (This, I have learned, is the best metric for measuring the quality of a halftime show—one former talent booker says that you know you have a good act on your hands if the vendors complain their sales are down.) I recently showed a video of her act to my grandmother, who is 92 years old and nearly impossible to impress, and within 30 seconds she was riveted. Red Panda is so beloved throughout the NBA that when someone stole her $25,000 custom unicycle from the baggage claim at an airport in San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors bought her a new one. I think the thing that sets her apart from other halftime performers, besides the sheer impressiveness of her act, is the fact that her real feelings seem to float so close to the surface as she’s doing it. A lot of other performers are fun to watch, but they work with the same stiff cheerfulness as ballroom dancers—those fake smiles that never drop, like they’re straining to make sure you don’t see any of the actual effort they’re putting in. Red Panda appears confident as she balances and flips, but her expressions seem fluid, responsive and real. While she’s stacking the bowls you can see the effort on her face—and when she finally pulls off the flip, she always looks as genuinely thrilled and surprised as you feel. It makes sense to me that NBA fans, in particular, love to see this; it feels of a piece with the up-closeness many people cherish about the sport. In its best moments, professional basketball can evince a weirdly intimate, vicarious thrill. Watching a particularly psychic pass or a flawless three-pointer, you often feel like the achievement is happening not just in front of but to you. Some of this has to do with basketball’s lack of padding and masks (you can see the expressions on the players’ faces as they work, which evinces a reflexive kind of empathy, makes it feel like theatre as much as sport), but it also has to do with the media ecosystem surrounding the NBA. *** They don’t play the halftime show on most regular TV broadcasts. Instead, the 15-minute mid-game spot is devoted to commentary, advertising, or a seamless mix of the two. The closest you get to seeing the halftime performance on air is a tantalizing split-second right before the end of the break: sometimes they’ll play a montage of slow-motion clips from the game so far, and sometimes that montage will include a fleeting silent shot of the halftime show. This image, if it appears at all, flashes onscreen right at the very end of everything else: a shimmering, dreamlike flicker of a dance crew clad in sparkling gold robot costumes that dissolves into a razor ad before you’ve even had time to process it, the way a good dream evaporates out of your mind when your alarm rings, before you’re ready to let it go. In the early weeks of my nascent NBA fandom, I watched every Raptors game on TV religiously but found it difficult to melt into the experience the way I had in the arena. A lot of this had to do with how closely all the ads encroached on the joy of the experience. At a live game, advertising is the literal wallpaper—scattered across the arena, printed on your tickets—but on TV, every time-out signals the beginning of a new barrage. If you’ve spent your life watching sports, you’re probably more or less inured to the pace and pitch of advertising in the broadcasts, but at this point the only sport I’d watched with any regularity was Jeopardy!. I was used to being gently whispered to about Gold Bond Medicated Foot Powder, not being yanked up by the collar and yelled at about drinks and shoes, cars and razors, The Keg and Real Sports, money and power and value and money.  After some research, I discovered that it was possible to access “in-game” streams through both legitimate and quasi-legal means: broadcasts of the game that showed you what was going on inside the stadium during time-outs and halftime. These feeds showed you the kiss cam and the dance crews and, most crucially, the halftime show. Pretty soon, I started watching every game I could this way—which is how my feelings about basketball grew from charmed interest to full-blown obsession. Like a lot of good art, basketball draws you in by making you feel a surface-level excitement you don’t really need any training or background knowledge to access. This pleasure can make you curious about the game—about its rules and its players, about what kinds of people can do these kinds of things and how. And once you’re wondering, the league and the media outlets that cover it have millions of answers for you. Between profiles, in-depth interviews, highlight reels, practice footage, Instagram and Twitter and YouTube and podcasts and an endlessly updating feed of statistics, there is a near-infinite wealth of NBA knowledge for you to absorb and assimilate. These two factors, up-closeness and in-depthness, work together in a cycle of exchange and encouragement that makes the NBA narcotically addictive. The more you know about a player—their life, their journey, their quirks and strengths, their effort—the more relatable they seem on an essential, basic level. For most basketball fans, investment and identification can become so fused they’re near-impossible to distinguish. Ask anyone what they love most about their favourite player and you will instantly learn something deeply personal about their desires, their values and their goals. I think often, for example, about what the poet Mikko Harvey told me a few years ago when discussing his love of D’Angelo Russell: “DLo’s fluctuations remind me of the swings between self-confidence and self-loathing so characteristic of the writing life. […] To me DLo is the scout the universe has sent to find out if you can live a life steered by intuition and imagination and still excel in a hard system that asks you to exchange your sense of play for efficient, unending labor.” This is how you can end up feeling intimately, personally invested in a millionaire’s ability to perform feats of physical strength and accomplishment you almost certainly never could. Stare at the game long enough and the distance between everything—players, league, game, court, self, other—begins to collapse. Everything becomes a metaphor for everything else, the league and your life each generating infinite layers of meaning for the other. Hard work, practice, repetition, desire: all these things are translatable. They live inside your life, too. In the best parts of professional basketball, the moments of perfect connection, all the news and money and surface-level noise seems to melt away and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the real core of the sport—the thing that calls you to it, keeps you caring—is something warm, complex, hopeful, essentially human. Realer than real. There is, of course, an inverse version of this feeling. Sometimes if I’m watching a regular NBA broadcast on plain old live TV, there’ll be a moment when I feel shocked completely out of the moment, like I’ve been ejected from my seat or from my body. Most of the things that trigger this abrupt dissociation happen at the ad break: my five-hundredth viewing of an aggressively condescending bank ad, or the times when a player gets injured and the footage of them lying crumpled on the hardwood cuts abruptly to a commercial, inadvertently stringing the two images together like they’re part of one continuous entertainment, because they are. In these moments, I can feel the metaphor curdling, the warmth of the enterprise draining away. This feeling, when it hits, is intensely familiar. I recognize it from a lifetime of enthusiastically consuming pop culture and living on the internet. It’s the queasiness that arises from deep, extended, voluntary contact with an institution whose fundamental purpose is to conjure a strong sense of engagement out of you so that it can eventually convert that feeling into cash. I get it when I think about the NBA’s tendency to quietly elide abusive or predatory behaviour by its players; I got it this past preseason with the Daryl Morey thing. It is the gut-level understanding that the distractions you turn to for comfort and hope and soothing escapist pleasure are directed by the same currents of power as whatever you’re trying to use them to escape. It is the feeling of having given over a large portion of your attention and your life and your love to something that is scaffolded, in the end, by money. *** My love of the halftime show, like my love of the NBA, has everything to do with projection. I’m a writer who’s devoted the better part of her career to working on two books of prose poetry you could generously describe as “quietly received.” On balance, I have made no money from doing this—in fact, it has cost me more than I care to admit. It is difficult to explain this choice to anyone who has not made it themselves; most normal people think of poetry as antiquated, practically useless, and not very cool, and they are correct. (Some poets will try to tell you that poetry is “still important” or “more relevant than ever”; if they do this, they are trying to sell you a book of essays.) However much I think I share with my favourite players—however I try to work their work into a metaphor for my own life—the truth is that the NBA performers I have the most in common with are the halftime acts. Like poetry, a lot of the best halftime shows feel brazenly out of step with time, fashion, and the logic of capitalism. Some are so far removed from contemporary trends that they seem to have time-travelled here from a pre-TV era. Like poetry, I don’t think many people pursue a career in Human Slinkying or quick-change artistry because they think it will make them incredibly rich or famous. So why do it, then? Why devote your life to the endless practice of an art form that is at once unprofitable, unpopular and completely disconnected from the zeitgeist? Here I can only speak to my own choices. There are still kinds of literature in this world that you can make (some) money from writing: an author can sell a book with a strong narrative arc, or a clear thesis, or a sparkling world the reader can see in her head like a movie. I love these kinds of books, but there are things they cannot do. It has been my personal experience—and maybe yours, too—that a lot of my strongest and weirdest and most vibrant feelings live outside of the limits of these more profitable kinds of articulation. They float beyond the narrative arc. The structure of a typical argument cannot contain them, and straight description never quite does them justice. They require a stranger kind of language, a vocabulary and a grammar untethered to the question of whether the largest possible number of people will find them immediately, pleasurably understandable and pay $20-40 for the privilege. When I am writing poems or reading them to an audience, in my most successful moments, I feel like I am participating in the centuries-old communal practice of building this vocabulary—like I am doing something small and significant and strange that reaches both forward and backward in time. Is this all kind of embarrassing? Absolutely. Is it frequently ridiculous? You bet. There are so many ways in which this kind of effort can fall short or feel cringingly small, as awkward as watching a sweaty, shirtless guy balance shakily on two basketballs before a sea of empty seats. But it can also, occasionally, be transcendent. Think of how it feels to watch Red Panda, so completely immersed in her work that you can’t help but catch a contact high. This is the feeling of watching a real live human being connect with a practice that extends beyond this room, make a grand gesture toward something far greater and stranger and more complicated than the petty concerns of audience or paycheque. And at halftime, you are not just watching this happen. You are watching it under the auspices of the National Basketball Association! A corporation whose every franchise is worth at least a billion dollars, whose productions are beloved by an unfathomably broad range of people all across the globe! Does that not give you a weird glimmer of uncommon, improbable hope? To me, the halftime show is a kind of Trojan horse—a secret, strange, and completely unique venue for performance art, hidden at the centre of one of pop culture’s most mainstream entertainment juggernauts. It’s no coincidence that the show is also the longest stretch of any game that is completely untouched and untouchable by advertising. That’s why they don’t show it on regular TV—you can’t cut it with commercials, or layer them overtop. Its sustained existence inside the gigantic moneymaking spectacle of the NBA is a reminder that some kinds of art still resist commercialization, are perhaps even immune to it. It is proof that these weirder, smaller kinds of work can persist—flourish, even—in places that on the surface seem inhospitable to them. The NBA halftime show is a living example of art thriving incongruously, impossibly, inside a system where almost everything else is optimized for maximum profit. It is a demonstration of a life’s work whose significance exists apart from the size of its audience, or their response to it. It makes a different kind of meaning, both inside and outside the rules. You don’t have to be a poet to love this. It is, like your life and mine, a flash of something small and strange and real inside the big, shiny machine. Something worth staying in your seat to see.
‘My Number One Rule is to Never Try to Write’: An Interview with Dan Bejar

Talking to the Destroyer singer-songwriter about his new album, Have We Met, writing as an act of inspiration, and being a musician in middle age.

For two decades, Dan Bejar’s Destroyer has been known for its sonic mutability. What started off as a low-fi folk project has moved through periods of glam, baroque, and sophisti-pop, but has always remained beholden to the charge of “Destroyerness” that runs through it. This singularity of vision is defined by relentless sonic experimentation, and unified by a lyrical approach that favours image over narrative, evoking emotion before analysis. His lyrics, often mistakenly labeled as abstract, are deliriously specific: it’s just that the world he’s building is not ours. Where most lyrical sheets opt for a first-person realism, Bejar has been slowly sculpting the alternate visions of a mad preacher. From “Blue Eyes,” off 2011’s Kaputt: “You're a permanent figure of jacked up sorrow/I want you to love me/You send me a coffin of roses/I guess that's the way that things go these days” Or from “La Regla De Ju” off 2017’s Ken, “Thursday: possibilities, slim and endless/Possibilities, slim and endless/The excellent beautiful woman/Left behind at the party by her friends/With a pig of a man who is wasted/She is wasted and slightly blinded/But not so blind as to not see,” and from “Crimson Tide,” the much quoted opener of their new album, Have We Met, “I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors/No wait, I take that back/I was more like an ocean/Stuck inside hospital corridors.” The images are vivid because of their particular bizarreness of language. This “Destroyerness” is what unites the catalog, despite sonic twists and turns. While the language creates hyper specific moments, what’s left out is context—to whom, about what, or when the narrator is speaking. Bejar has described his writing in terms of brush strokes or a painter’s colours, hinting at desire to evoke rather than describe. It’s a kind of modernist writing that relies on sound and images to create meaning. By generally downplaying narrative world-building he asks listeners to use their own memories to provide context and emotion, luring them into a deeper bond with the writer. The lyrics become simultaneously vague and direct, ambiguous and evocative, pockmarked with turns of phrase that stud into the brain and link us to our image making Unconscious. After nine releases, Kaputt was the first time this broke through to the mainstream: the sound that he and his bandmates created—sophisti-pop tweaked, with gentle, lush synths, stoned disco beats, and the electronic lilt of a wide-eyed librarian—happened to coincide with a larger reembrace of synth music. This apocalyptic texture persisted through his post Kaputt career. Where Kaputt was full of yearning, and Ken a slinking anger, his latest release, Have We Met, completes this synth trilogy of modern dread with a droning melancholy on the big existential themes: memory, regret, alienation, and the end of times. In interviews, Bejar displays an analytic mind capable of engaging with his own work as if he was talking about someone else. Whether or not he’s playing mischief is difficult to assess; the interviews themselves, with many mentions of “typical Destroyer shit,” seem self-aware about being self-aware. This ability to maintain this self-awareness allows him to be free as he wants with romantic imagery in his lyric writing—poets, flowers, wine, and drunken failure are common motifs—without coming off as tediously deranged. The key to his artistic voice is its ability to pair romantic indulgence with straight-eyed despair, allowing him to move between genres while maintaining a cool elegance. I was curious to hear more about his writing process, and called Dan in Vancouver. He spoke to me graciously, a soggy cough interrupting us sporadically, as he promised he was fine. Adnan Khan: How’s the weather there? Dan Bejar: Dismal. I heard it’s really shitty. It’s like sometimes Vancouver gets a certain version of grey where it all blends together into one thing. I used to live there. You know what I’m talking about. Pitchfork’s Instagram posted five inspirations for the album; one of them was Bi Gan’s Lost Day’s Journey Into Night. What in particular did you take from that to Have We Met? Not to rip apart the facade of my five inspirations on [the] Pitchfork Instagram post but I feel like that was something I just threw together. Sure. Those are things that I like, but I wasn’t, I can’t really parse them in a way that’s just like me watching Long Day’s Journey Into Night, pressing pause every once in a while, taking off my 3D glasses, and writing down some notes to be discussed later, or upon working on Have We Met. I think I just like that guy’s movies. I’ve seen two of them. One is that one and one is his first one called Kaili Blues, which I probably like even more. I’ve seen them both, I’ve heard the album, and they’re sharing a frequency, I would say. The reason those movies strike a chord with me is that they do a kind of thing that I dig, which is, it works a lot with memory. With memory being erased, which is a topic I really like. Being lost in a fog, which is a topic I really like. There are movies that aren’t scared to express themselves explicitly through poetry, as in like, poems that are written and then spoken in a movie, which is pretty rare. Like in Kaili Blues, I thought that was some of the best poetry I’d read or heard in a movie or outside of a movie in a book. That’s pretty rare, especially a director, some director in his twenties, is gonna anchor his movies with that kind of writing. I think he was a poet beforehand. I don’t know anything about him, but he must have been. The only poetry like that in a movie I know is Tarkovsky’s stuff, and that was using his dad’s writing. I’m sure maybe Tarkovsky was an influence… or at least was like a liberator, like, “He does all these things I can do too.” I think a lot of the textures in Long Day’s Journey I felt in your writing for Have We Met. Yeah, that’s cool. When I say I like something, I never know how much I take from it. I feel like Destroyer writing has been kind of an etched in stone thing for a while now. I don’t really know; I feel like I still really take influence from singers. Or I still take influence from ambience, you know? As far as me sitting down and what I write, I feel like an etched in stone thing, for 15 years now maybe? In terms of what themes and stuff you take on? Just—A) I don’t even know what I take on. I’ve never felt like I’ve sat down and attacked a theme in my life. Right—you say that for you writing is very inspirational. At the same time, you also say that there’s “typical Destroyer shit.” Right, yeah. I say that there is, only because I assume there is: any writer has that. What some people call themes, I just call my nervous tics. Or my hang-ups. I know they’re there. I know I write in patterns. I’ve been told that I repeat myself. What do you do with that comment? I have no problem with it. Does it affect your work? I wish I could hone things even harder. And say less. And repeat myself more. That’s something that like behooves singing, you know? I’d rather eliminate all chords as well, if I could. What’s that been like? You made the shift, ten years ago, to saying that you wanted to focus more on singing, you felt like you wanted to pare down lyrically. You felt like earlier there was a battle between your lyrics and your music. Are you still viewing yourself primarily as someone who wants to bring a certain standard of writing to pop music? I think I got it wrong when I thought about it ten years ago. I knew there was some kind of shift that happened when I started listening to more instrumental music and I felt just kind of spent with the notion of [being a] singer-songwriter. I needed to say that to will it—but it wasn’t actually what happened. It hasn’t really been ‘til this record, Have We Met, where I’ve learned to sing in a way that I had in my head. The way that I was talking about when Kaputt came out was kinda dead. On that record it’s pretty dead eyed. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived to it ‘til this record. The strange thing is—which I never thought of—how you sing maybe affects how you write. And not vice versa. Yeah, on “Man in Black Blues” was the first time where I was like, “Oh shit, that’s that singing.” That song to me is a very simple song that from beginning to end tries to address loss, or grief, it tries to give solace of some kind. And in the end it drops that and kind of moves from solace into being like just trying to sing on a dark topic or a sad topic in kind of a blue eyed funk kind of way. In terms of writing—do you view writing as something that’s unified? Something that you have to bring together with singing? The way I do it now, I just sing into my phone. Usually the words and the melodies come as one thing. There’s songs on Have We Met that bring that mold. That first song, “Crimson Tide,” is kind of old school 2000s Destroyer. But that’s because I had a melodic motif and a beat and two chords. I was just pilfering old writing of mine and sticking it to that. Otherwise I was gonna throw away that writing. I was pleasantly surprised it was more melodious that I remembered. Would you feel anything if you threw it away? I don’t know. It’s the same as forgetting about it or never looking at it again. I didn’t need to burn it and spread its ashes everywhere. You seem very casual about your writing process, which is weird, considering how much people talk about your writing. I don’t know enough about writers to know how many share my process. Which is super casual, I guess. I don’t have a routine, I don’t have a headspace, that I know of—I mean, I probably do. I don’t enjoy examining myself closely enough to know what that headspace is. Where does the self-analysis come from? You’re a pretty good interview. The self-analysis? Yeah, of the work. Being bullied into it by having to talk to people about it. Otherwise, it would never happen in a million years. I mean, I’m just making this up as I speak: I’m sure I’ll deny all of it. It does sound like you’re talking about someone else’s work. I mean, it’s my work, but it’s—to me it’s still important that the records are called Destroyer records and not Dan Bejar records. Maybe that’s a luxury writers don’t have. I have that luxury in a big way. The press release for Have We Met talks about Y2K as a conceptual starting point. I know you sort of threw out that talking point, but it did feel—like a lot of the stuff on the album, the dread, the confusion, that’s very Y2K to me. Was that actually a thread? Again, I felt like I was thinking more sonically, to be honest. There seemed to be these kind of moments, and maybe they’re stacked up more than your average Destroyer record, of world dread, just like, panic as a topic. Even though when I’m singing about it, I sound, at least to myself, more relaxed and casual then I’ve ever sounded. Which is funny, because, I think for a good chunk of the 2000s I sang in a way that literally physically embodied the word panic. Which is kind of the opposite the way I deliver words now. It seemed to come up in some kind of unnamed darkness encroaching. Which, for me, is kind of a fun theme, as well as one [that], oddly enough, seems palpable in the very air we breathe these days. So it’s kind of like, win-win. It feels like that’s a romantic theme for me, plus the world seems kinda extra fucked. So I might as well. Going back to—we’ve sort of thrown away the Pitchfork list. No, that’s okay, I don’t mean to throw it away—I feel like, when I watched that movie it was really strange, and when I watched Kaili Blues it was really strange and like, “Oh this feels like a kindred spirit,” I mean but somehow, really kinda more masterful in that. Usually you’re good at one or two things, but that guy is visually so striking, but also kind of just a stunning director in the old sense of the world, but also seems to be a poet. How many poets turn into film directors? I don’t know besides Pasolini who there is. It’s just surprising, you know. And the whole kind of dreamlike trajectory of things, even though they wander, it’s still like an arrow shot. You mention noir a couple of times, and like, that to me, that chase, that arrow, is central to the Bi Gan movies, but you also mentioned Patrick Modiano as an inspiration, and he’s working with a lot of that memory, repetition, that dreamscape. I found that stuff is on your frequency, lyrically at least. I like his books because they do have that combo. A) They seem to take place in a kind of like pretty menacing world. It’s always an unknown dread—even though you actually do know what that dread is, which is Occupied Paris, but it’s always just someone kind of wandering semi-aimlessly through their life and they know that all the key bits of their life thread back to these dark times, you know? And there’s always weird characters who show up for one scene or half a scene and they say a couple of things and you never see them again. There’s a lot of wandering through the streets without any real direction, but there’s some kind of mystery at the heart of it, always. At some point the point of the mystery will fall by the wayside, in favor of like, a very salient brutal moment right at the end of the book. Those are all things I like… I don’t always associate this stuff with Destroyer, but for the last few years for some reason, I feel more comfortably, I just sink into it. I think maybe it’s stuff that I would have thought is goofy when I was younger, especially music that I thought sounded kind of noirish in the ’90s, which was a real thing. I always thought it was kind of hack and they would always use the silliest samples and be really moody in a goofy way. Now I wonder if I’d be all over it. You seem lately very attracted to artifice. I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s true. I like—I feel in some ways I’m writing in a way that’s… I don’t know why I think this, but in some ways I’m writing in a way that’s more personal than I ever have. Not by leaps and bounds, but just my general trajectory. If you can feel that, or at least sing that, you can cloak it in whatever glass box or flowing silks… you can wrap it in whatever you want and it’ll still have this thing at the heart of it. It did seem, around Ken, you started talking about an interest in koan-type lyrics, and I found that on this album there was a lot more repetition, and that really brought me back to that idea of prayer and that sense of speaking to someone. It’s got that very similar tie into noir and that big dreamscape. Is that purposefully a direction you’re moving towards? You have talked about as you’re getting older, your writing getting pared down—is that something you’re finding happens naturally, or are you striving towards it? It really happens naturally, you know? I just kind of like… it’s just how it comes out. It’s coming out more conversational, more like my speaking voice. I mean, when the band plays songs off of, say, Destroyer’s Rubies, it’s really fun to sing, but I find myself taking pause and wondering about—I’m just curious as to where all those words came from. They just came tumbling out. I don’t know if at that time I was still in love with the challenge of starting at the 1 and ending at the 4 and getting the line somehow, that was almost impossible, in making the line melodious, even though there’s barely room for notes. Just tangling with music in a different way than I do now. That cramming of syllables into meter, that is the closest to what rap kind of is, right? That lyrical focus is not really there in a lot of pop music. It’s funny, when we started working on the record and really just had the idea of loud simple beats, and just kind of in your face, punishing bass and just sound effects, what John took away was, I think at first he was thinking of an old school rap aesthetic. In some ways I’m maybe thinking of hip hop more than I ever have, but still from a music standpoint, even though, I mean that’s where all the kind of cool writing in music is happening right now, when I was doing something like Rubies, I was really just listening to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell all day long. I think you’re right in that most lyrical innovation is coming from hip hop and not rock anymore. It just doesn’t seem like a concern in rock music. It seems like an afterthought. Maybe even in hip hop now that’s becoming more the case as well, I don’t know. At least for the previous 20 years that seemed to be where all the action was. I think you said you were reading Fleur Jaeggy? Yeah, a couple years back I was burning through her books. What did you like about it? I love her style. So brittle but also had this amazing flow for something that seemed hardened. It could be like a Swiss thing. I think Swiss writers maybe have access to dark places we don’t know about it. It seemed also to like brutally lay everything on the line. But her narrator voice—I found it really readable and poetic, although it’s not really—the style is the opposite of poetic. Also, again, kind of a world that seems—even though everything she’s describing is familiar, it’s probably dark and fantastic in a way that’s like Switzerland in the 20th century. I felt a lot of The Black Paintings by Goya, in Have We Met. Was that at all on your mind? I mean those are like the only paintings I know. I don’t know anything about art, I just know about Goya a little bit. I don’t know how much that creeps into Have We Met specifically. I feel like with Have We Met the main thing that’s happened with me is probably just going back into a regression into kind of being slightly obsessive about film. Which is a way that I was, maybe in my early twenties? Before music kind of took over my life. For some reason, now, in my middle age-dom, I mean I’ve always loved films but it feels like I get these ideas about movies turning around in my head in a way that I can’t let go of. Those are the kind of things I mean when I talk about nervous tics and hang-ups. It feels like the most filmic album I’ve done, even though maybe Poison Season and Kaputt are a little bit more directly into the idea of film scores. This is more into the idea of what does film actually do, you know? You sound lately, and I don’t mean this to be rude, but very age conscious. Age conscious? Yeah, like you bring up a lot of, that you feel like you’re middle age— I don’t feel like it! I am middle age. I’m 47. Does it feel like a turning point or something? You’ve always been talking a lot about Leonard Cohen’s late work, Van Morrison’s late work. Oh yeah. That’s kind of always—I think to not be conscious of it in show business is just like, what do you call that kind of ignorance where it’s not borne of nothing but it serves a greater, possibly nefarious purpose? To not be conscious of how things age out for singers—to not think that’s a thing, is to me, dangerous and hurtful. It means it’ll never change. What do you mean? To not bring it up all the time. To let people know about it. To have it be known that there’s an old person in the world. Usually, you’re put on a raft by the time you’re 45 in music. I don’t know who else you’re thinking about, but it’s kinda lonely out there. [laughs] If someone in show business, a singer or actor or dancer, someone who does something with their body, people look at you and they either clap or want you to go away—it’s time for you to go when you’re my age. That’s not an accident. That’s just an apparatus that’s been set up. Pop culture, rock music, it’s very much a product of youth culture. It always has been. That’s why it’s tough to reckon yourself as a writer or artist, because you know your time in theory is played out and your best work is behind you. As opposed to a novelist when you’re 45 or a film director when you’re 47, they’re just getting to the good stuff. It’s just not like that in my world. Do you really not think you have a book in you? I’m just not interested. I don’t think, deep down, if I’m being honest. I don’t know what kind of book—I have writing that didn’t end up in songs, but I don’t know what it is. It’s like a poem. It doesn’t have an ending. They’re all short blasts of writing that I could try to piece together into something else. It wouldn’t be a poem. I definitely don’t have a story to tell… when there’s like a story happening, especially a concrete one, I generally want people to move it along. You know, I’m kinda strung along by people’s styles and if they describe scenarios—if that style takes place in scenarios I kinda like, then I’ll stick with it. Why don’t you just do that? I don’t have the muscle. I haven’t exercised it. I don’t know what it would like. Have you ever tried? No, because I’m not used to trying. I’ve never tried to write anything. My number one rule is to never try to write. I really don’t believe that. It seems so strange for me for you to just say, like, I just walk around and into my iPhone notes I put in lyrics. And then they have this cohesive thing. Is it just a matter of accumulation? It’s kind of accumulation. It’s kind of going through them a little bit, but it happens pretty fast. Usually like if I’m having one week where I’m kind of writing a lot if you collect the sticky notes from that week or the voice memos from that week, you’re going to see that it generally turns into a certain song. So you’re not sitting down at a desk. No, no fucking desk, no way. Sitting down at a desk is what you do when you have to like, figure out which Garage Band Apple drum loop to use. That’s for the music stuff. Not for writing. Your writing stuff is pure intuition. Yeah, it’s just walking around… Always? Always. That seems like a crazy way to do that. Yeah, it doesn’t feel sustainable, that’s for sure— You have sustained it. I live in this certain valley of terror, where it’s like, “This can’t possibly be the way I do this for the rest of my life.” A) I know I’m slowing down and I do it less and less and less. So that’s a feeling. Not to go back to the age thing, that’s pretty common. You kind of think about things more but the actual doing happens less. That’s fair. I dunno. It would be good to have a room and a desk and I just stare at the wall and see what happens and I put in my time and I punch out. I really think you’d be surprised with yourself if you did that. I’m not saying I’m never gonna try it. I’d like to try it sometime. I just haven’t done it yet. And I’m obviously 100 percent suspect of it for myself. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try it and fail at it.
‘Minimalism is a Survival Strategy’: An Interview with Kyle Chayka

The author of The Longing for Less on minimalism as an inherent judgment, the aesthetics of community, and why he’s hesitant to identify as a minimalist himself.

There’s a moment in Kyle Chayka’s The Longing for Less (Bloomsbury USA) when it feels as if the entire book is about to fall apart. Chayka, an established cultural critic for The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Nation and more, makes the incongruous observation that writing about minimalism is anathema because words crowd the stark beauty of a blank page, filling it with clutter. Indeed, there’s something unnerving about the impulse to decipher the meaning of minimalism, and the cognitive dissonance that comes with that acknowledgment elicits the power of a sucker punch. The term minimalism has become modern gospel, shorthand for a self-congratulatory lifestyle that eschews the accumulation of material goods and casts all nonessentials as sheer frivolity. One needs only to glimpse at Kim Kardashian’s tchotchke-less, concrete home to understand that minimalism has become one of the most important—and loaded—cultural signifiers of our time. Chayka demonstrates that the basic tenets of minimalism have been conveniently repackaged multiple times throughout history, beginning with the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece, shifting to the transcendental self-sufficiency of Henry David Thoreau, and later, the “voluntary simplicity” adopted by people who shopped from the Whole Earth catalog in the 1970s.  The Longing for Less is a powerful meditation on the origins of minimalism, its recent commodification, and how it all went awry. Chayka explores famous minimalist cultural artifacts like Philip Johnson’s boastfully austere Glass House, Donald Judd’s sterile cubes, and John Cage’s brilliant musical troll, 4’33, to craft his argument that minimalism has the power to be far less dour than our current cultural understanding allows. Chayka speaks in a sort of surfer-dude drawl, punctuated by plenty of “yeahs” and “totallys.” We spoke about minimalism as an inherent judgment, the aesthetics of community, and why he’s hesitant to identify as a minimalist himself. Isabel Slone: Throughout the book, there are snippets of your own interest in minimalism: a wardrobe filled with grey clothing and a relatively empty Brooklyn apartment save for your roommate’s stuff. How would you describe your own personal relationship with minimalism? Kyle Chayka: I started paying attention in 2015-2016, when I kept seeing the word minimalism pop up all over the place, used to describe the interior of a bar or a restaurant or a hotel. People were also talking about how they were living a lifestyle that didn’t put much stock into material possessions. And I had been looking a lot at this magazine, called Kinfolk, which ushered in this hipster-minimalist aesthetic of Spartan living. Around that time, minimalism was everywhere, but then I remembered that Agnes Martin and Donald Judd were part of an art movement in the 1960s called minimalism, and the work they made seemed to have little connection to what people were talking about as minimalism today. So I got interested in that disconnect between how people were using the word and the origins of the word. You clearly appreciate the aesthetics of minimalism, but you stop short of calling yourself a minimalist. Why is that? The aesthetic of minimalism has always really appealed to me; bare empty rooms, the art gallery vibe. But the label of minimalism that emerged over the past 5-10 years actually doesn’t have that much to do with the ideas behind minimalism and minimalist art that attracted me. The thing that makes me hesitant is that minimalism as a concept has been super commodified, as we’ve seen with Marie Kondo selling crystals and tuning forks on her website. Minimalism has become a brand that I don’t think has much in common with the original meaning of the term. I wrote the book in some ways to follow that trail and see what it could mean in the future. I’m curious about how minimalism came to be associated with affluence. It used to be that owning a lot of material objects telegraphed wealth, but now it seems to be the other way around. How did we get to that point? Right now, minimalism is this commandment to consume fewer, better things. But aesthetics are always evolving and each era and generation has a different idea of what luxury means. In the 1940s and ’50s, post-WWII, the aesthetic of success and luxury in America was material accumulation. It was a house in the suburbs, a fancy car. But at the same time, artists and writers were rebelling against that, especially in New York. Artists started colonizing the factory neighbourhood of SoHo and moving into these giant lofts. Then over the following decades, that kind of industrial austerity became a luxury aesthetic on its own. From the 1980s to the 2000s, fashion brands adopted the lifestyle of the SoHo loft artist as a marker of cool, which they branded and marketed to us as a quote-unquote authentic way of living. Now every new condo building is a loft. You brought up fashion, so I wanted to take your temperature on something. The rise of minimalism coincides with the fashion industry’s widespread embrace of down-market clothing; designer sweatpants have become more covetable than a bespoke suit. Do you see these two phenomena as related? Totally. The promise of minimalism as a consumer idea is that you can buy one perfect, multipurpose item. That’s not going to be a finicky fashion thing, like a couture dress or a tailored suit. It’s going to be the kind of hard-wearing, sturdy basics everyone is gravitating towards. It’s sort of funny, "basic" is another word for minimalism, in some ways. What Everlane and Uniqlo are selling, for example, is essentially affordable, minimalist clothing that will not make you stand out and not make you look bad. It’s middle-of-the-road optimization of fashion. There’s this conception of minimalism, exemplified by Philip Johnson’s Glass House, as an implicit boast… I would say it’s explicit. Okay, an explicit boast that seems to pass judgment on anyone who doesn’t live by its tenets. Is this sense of being judged by minimalism a legitimate reaction or just a perceived slight? I think it’s a totally valid reaction. The sense I always got was that minimalism can be a form of control, and it’s really easy to feel not included, or that your messy humanity is not accommodated by the style. I remember being in this hotel in Texas that was all cement: walls, ceiling, floor. It looked very cool but it was an inhuman space. It felt oppressive, like it was not conducive to living things. On the other hand, we can compare Philip Johnson’s Glass House to Donald Judd’s loft as an example of minimalism as a lack of control, where you can let anything into your space and not have to force the style. Minimalism doesn’t have to be homogenous. Hopefully I sketch out an idea of minimalism that’s not so judgmental and not so controlling. What I perceived the conclusion of the book to be is that unhappiness and disappointment lies at the root of our cultural obsession with minimalism and if people learned to be more accepting of their lives, they wouldn’t feel the need to exert control over minute things. Is the galaxy brain meme version of minimalism just…not giving a fuck? I think my sense of minimalism is much closer to not giving a fuck than trying to make a perfect space or trying to find the perfect object. I mean, I’m still very pretentious. I love finding great stuff. But this idea that you can buy a perfect set of furniture and thus control your life is very problematic. The people in the book I like the most are the ones who give less of a fuck about following an orthodox set of rules. Like the Eames. Is there anyone right now whose DGAF minimalism you think will be remembered fondly by history? Steve Jobs was a huge design influence on everyone’s lives. The iPhone sort of set the expectation for this wealthy, glossy, minimalist aesthetic of technology. But the Eames would have been so against iPhones. They would not like what is going on, I feel. You write that minimalism is simply a natural reaction to living through the brash excess of the early 2000s. Do you think the aesthetic pendulum with shift soon and we will begin to crave noise and clutter once more? You have to separate the trendy style of minimalism from the ideas that define it. I think the fad will inevitably fade pretty soon. We’re already seeing people turning against the super austere style. But to me, the idea of considered living and developing your own sense of taste and living in a sustainable way is so much more important. I think it will keep being a concern, especially in the next few decades considering climate change and the possible apocalypse and the total upheaval of our lives is a looming threat. Minimalism is a survival strategy, I think. And right now feels like a moment to survive, rather than accumulate more crap. You position minimalism as the aesthetics of individualism, yet the culture feels like it’s starting to shift away from the individual in favour of community. Is there an aesthetic for community? As a fan of minimalism, I hope that minimalism could be an aesthetic for community as well. You see the hope of design for community in Bauhaus, or even the Eames ideal of making the best thing for the least money for the most people. I think minimalism’s aesthetic is, to use a tech phrase, minimum viable style. You can make it cheaply, you can adopt the style easily and use whatever is around you. So I think minimalism could be the aesthetic of impromptu communities or industrial reuse. There’s a phrase you use in the book I found irresistible: “luxurious minimalism.” These two concepts that should theoretically oppose each other actually work really well together in practice. Can you expand a bit on what you mean by luxurious minimalism? That’s the paradox of the book, I suppose. How did minimalism become luxurious? Speaking to the context of the Japan chapter, whether the phrase appears, the people in Heian Japan around 1000 AD lived these lives of extreme luxury. They had tons of servants and giant mansions and were surrounded by material goods and they just seemed to have appreciated it all so much. Despite their surroundings, their quality of living was actually not that high. The structures they lived in were super drafty, they were not as technologically advanced as China or Korea, at that point they had kind of cut themselves off from the world. So in the absence of other influences, they were driven to appreciate, say, the blooming of a single flower, or the intricate changing of the seasons, or the smell of one stick of incense. Shonagon, the author of The Pillow Book, was obsessively recording the super mundane details of the world. I think that’s kind of a luxury in itself, to be able to notice everything so closely and observe what’s around you. That’s the luxury of minimalism to me. Not wanting to accumulate more stuff, but instead wanting to have the luxury of attention and an appreciation for what’s already there. We don’t have that enough. That’s a lovely thought.
Supporting Details

There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance.

A few weeks after I lost the admin gig at NASA, I pulled a job at the men’s sauna downtown. The building was nondescript: gray, with a gravel parking lot, snuggled between the lofts beside Toyota Stadium and Chinatown. Inside, you took one flight of steps after another, passing white signs on black walls in dim lighting leaping out at your face: VIAGRA AND POPPERS ARE A DEADLY COMBINATION; IF YOU ARE DRUNK, WE WILL NOT ADMIT YOU; NO MEANS NO, EVERY TIME; ASK ME ABOUT PrEP. By the time I made it to the register—this glass window in front of a padded black door, behind which stood the locker room, which led to the baths themselves—I’d almost psyched myself out. But I’d already made it farther than I thought I would. This short Latino guy squinted at me from behind the counter. Dude had round cheeks behind rounder glasses. Soft voice. Sleepy eyes. His nametag said Eduardo, but the letters were crossed out, with Eddy scribbled in Sharpie above them. I asked him for an application, and then I asked if the place was hiring, or if I should make an appointment, or if I should just leave. Eddy blinked twice. Shook his head. Buzzed me in. We sat under a wall of keys, numbered from one to infinity. Another guy, muscled and Vietnamese, stood beside us folding towels. Eddy asked about my experience, scratching at his armpits. So I started in on college, and then grad school, and I stopped when Eddy yawned. Guess that wasn’t what you meant, I said. No, said Eddy. But you have a lovely voice. You ever even been to a gay sauna before? Seriously? You’d be surprised. Of course I have, I said. This wasn’t a lie. On a work trip to Dallas, like four years ago, I’d slipped into an oversized locker room on the edge of the business district. I paid in cash. Gave no I.D. After a few minutes of tiptoeing around, an older black dude touched my shoulder. He led me to a room, where he kissed me, gently, and then he sucked me off, gently, and when I did the same to him, or when I tried to, he moaned, gently, and then not so gently, as if he were singing to me, fondling my earlobes, pinching my neck. He tried fucking me, but I was entirely too tight, so he grinded in my mouth until he came. When he’d finished, and I stood up to leave him, he grabbed me, again, kissing me on the lips. Then he smiled. That confused me. I grabbed my shit and ghosted. Once, I told Eddy. And that made you want to work at one, said Eddy. I still think about it, I said. Eddy looked me up and down. There was something boyish in his face, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That only made it stronger. Don’t take this wrong, he said, but you don’t look cut out for this. No one’s cut out for anything when they start, I said. That’s fair, said Eddy. But you still don’t. I just want to be around men, I said, surprising myself. Men like this. At that, Eddy smiled. It completely distorted his face. Like what, he said. You know, I said. I want you to say it. I’m looking for something, I said. I think I’m looking for something and I think that this is where I can find it. Eddy blinked at me. He laughed in my face. You and everyone else, he said. I worked every night but Tuesdays, from eight to four in the morning. After you’d made it inside, past the walk-up, the sauna had four floors. Every room was dim, and stocked with condoms and lube, from the lobby to the hot tub to the showers to the dry saunas. The second and third floors were mazes, both flanked by padded rooms with double-lockable doors. The fourth floor was where men went to sleep, with a mini-bar, vending machines, sofas, and an STI clinic. Mostly, at first, I plodded around the building in flip-flops. Picking up towels and wiping down mats and snatching up used paper towels and slipping on lube. Some nights, the tile stayed immaculate. Other nights, it was dotted with semen. Sometimes, I’d wake up guys who’d fallen asleep in their towels on the floor. Eventually, Eddy had me working the front counter, too. Logging I.D.s, checking dudes in. Most people quit within a week or two, he said. It’s been three, I said. Give it another three, said Eddy. The rules for employees were simple: no drugs. No photos. No phone calls. You could use the sauna whenever, but you couldn’t fuck on the clock. But I wouldn’t recommend fucking here at all, said Leo. He was other guy who manned the counter with me, with the biceps. His were thrice the size of mine. I’ve had experiences, he said. Trust me. I will, I said. Great, said Eddy, slipping between us for a key. But most people do. And the guys that come here, said Eddy, they aren’t your friends. Okay, I said. Really. They aren’t here for you. He heard you, said Leo. Of course he did, said Eddy. Most people say that, too. There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance. I saw guys in three-piece suits. I saw guys in tracksuits. I saw frat kids. I saw fathers. I saw doctors. I saw chefs. I saw family men. I saw car dealers. I saw pastors. I saw teachers. I saw burnouts. I saw guys visiting relatives for the holidays. I saw guys visiting relatives in the Medical District. I saw guys entirely too fucked up from clubbing. Once, I recognized a gaggle of football players in town for a playoff game, and when I told Eddy, he only glanced at their driver’s licenses, which were fake, and shrugged. Later, Leo told me that this happened all the time. Nearly everyone wore the same smile. A tight pinch of the lips. Shoulders tensed. I’d pass them their towels and their keys and they’d shuffle through the door. Most guys stayed at least an hour. Some stayed eight or nine. Some guys sprinted right back through the entrance minutes later. But once they’d made it through the doors, most of these men were very different. They were stupid. They were goofy. They very deliberate, or not. Some of the men ignored me, but most of them at least nodded, and every race and ethnicity passed through those fucking doors, although of course most patrons would follow a single whiteboy around the sauna for hours. The handful of black men I saw in the building held eye contact with me like a grip, literally shaking it. A few months in, some of the regulars made it a point to chat. One of them, a young Chinese guy, took to hanging around the lobby in the evenings. He’d stay past sunrise, sipping Powerade and tapping on the counter and chewing chips and scrolling through Instagram. One night, I asked him why he didn’t just pay for an annual membership. It’s not that simple, he said. I just can’t go home at the moment. Fuck, I said. I’m so sorry. No no no, he said, smirking. Calm down. I mean I missed the bus. So I’m stuck. Oh. I literally can’t get home most nights. Mm, I said, and I turned away, but he didn’t. You don’t look like you should be working here, he said. What does that mean? You look smart enough to know exactly what I mean. You don’t look like you should have an Australian accent, I said. But here we are. You’re funny, said the guy. But maybe not as smart as I thought. He said his name was John. He was a student, he told me, in the States on scholarship. Said he was smart enough not to show the university how smart he was, so he kept getting funding because it always looked like he was improving. Another guy named Arash leaned on the other side of the counter. He said he’d thought I was Sri Lankan. That’s what Leo told me, he said. When I first saw you working here, I was happy. I thought—finally. Leo’s a liar, I said. We’re all liars, said Arash. But this one’s too good, said John, nodding at me. He won’t even kiss me. Not even a kiss, said Arash. Impressive. I’m not here for you, I said. You’re only here for me, said John. I pay your salary. You’re talking like a colonizer, said Arash. Of course you’d say that, said John. You’re saying that because I’m Indian. He’s saying that because he’s an idiot, I said. I’m saying that because I can, said John, scratching at his hip, eyeing a whiteboy who’d been lingering behind him—and, without a word, John gave us a look, before he followed the guy upstairs, slapping his heels on the steps. Arash was a nurse who lived out in Bellaire. He slept at the sauna four nights a week. It was cheaper than paying rent. He sent most of his checks to a sister overseas, although he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t really going to her husband’s family. He’d been in Houston for ten years. He’d worked at the hospital for seven. They love me because I work holidays, he said. Never took a sick day. Not one. One morning I broke my toe and the next hour I was at work. But I never see any of the money. You think you’ll go back? Your answer’s in the question, said Arash. Ten years here, what can I do? I rarely ever saw Arash pair off with anyone, but it happened from time to time. Burly brown dudes stuck in the city on layovers. Sometimes whiteboys, too. Mostly, he slept on the third floor, watching men walk up and down the stairs. And John was his polar opposite, talking entirely too loudly at the counter before disappearing for hours at a time. But at some point or another most evenings, both men lingered in front of me. Toying with their phones, pulling crumbs from the same bag of chips. Men are disgusting, said John, adjusting his towel, scratching his belly. You only say that after they’ve fucked you, said Arash. You’re assuming I’m bottoming, said John. And I say that because it’s true. They’re foul. We’re foul. You sound like every spurned lover there’s ever been, said Arash. Shut up, said John, and he threw chunks of a cookie at him. I told them both to stop fucking around. I forget, said John. You’re working. I am working, I said. For you, as you’d say. You’re learning, said John. But you’re here for the same reason as everyone else. I’m not here to fuck. Fucking has nothing to do with it. I thought you said you had a Master’s. You have a Master’s? said Arash, gurgling a chocolate chip. It doesn’t matter, I said. I’m curious, said Arash, what brings us here, if not fucking? Of course you know why, said John. I don’t, said Arash. Enlighten me. Enlighten me, mimicked John, in a voice four octaves higher, tossing another cookie into his mouth. Some mornings after my shift I’d walk from the sauna’s lobby to the upper levels, sweeping up stray condoms but mostly listening. Loose moans oozed from closed doors. Yelps popped from the mazes. That smacking sound followed me from staircase to staircase. And porn—skinny white guys fucking each other senseless—played from the televisions above. These were just the sounds of the workday. In a way, none of this felt too different from the old office: coffee dripping, hushed conversations. There, I wore something like a suit. Here, I had a different uniform: a black t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I wore a name tag for a minute, until I realized that nobody cared. Some days, I changed the name, just to see what would happen. Around the sauna, men leaned over others having sex, like they were watching sports, just snorting at the score. They hunched on one another in benches by the stairs, laughing or whispering or just rubbing their eyes, staving off sleep, biding their time. Eddy called the sauna a sort of purgatory. But a good one, he said. I’ve never heard of a good purgatory, said Leo, folding towels. I was raised in the church. I heard everything. So you think it’s like a break from life, I said. It is life, said Leo. But distilled. Like mezcal, I said. Sure, said Leo. Or soju. Now you’re just naming liquors. But there’s a point, I said. Drink too much and it’ll kill you. The only point here is time, said Eddy. If these guys wait long enough, they’ll get what they’re looking for. Maybe, I said. Now you’re the expert, said Eddy. He’s right, said Leo. Some people have to wait quite a while. But they wait regardless, said Eddy. And they pay to do that. What it comes down to is who can afford to wait. Who has that kind of time. Who can spend it. Or who can spend it because they don’t have shit else to do, said Leo. They’re still spending something, said Eddy, picking his ear, twirling a set of keys. I pitched the thesis to Arash and John later that evening. They leaned on the counter, sweating and sticky, working through a bag of spicy Cheetos. I’m not saying I agree with it, I said. Then why even tell us, said Arash. Because he’s an idiot, said John. And he’s wrong. You know what this place is really like? Educate us, said Arash. A bottle of Pop Rocks, said John. Pardon? I don’t know what your brown man’s equivalent would be, said John. Put one Pop Rock in a water bottle, and that shit explodes on contact. But fill an entire bottle with Rocks, and none of them move. They have nowhere to go. That’s what everyone’s doing here, said John. We’re all waiting for someone to free up some space. So one of us can move. Some days, there’s a whole reaction. Like an orgy, I said. Obviously, said John. You told us you study at a university, said Arash. What I could do with the money they use to teach you these things. Capitalist, said John. You’re finally an American. I will never be an American, said Arash, smiling, examining a Cheeto. They aren’t even that hot, said Arash. You people will call anything spicy. In the mornings after my shifts, I’d drive back to my place just north of downtown. Grab a few tacos. Sleep for a few hours. Fuck around on the internet for two or three more. The panic attacks had mostly subsided, they weren’t nearly as bad as they’d been, but there was, in those months, a sort of fretting that was going on in my life. My parents were bereft. They’d heard that I’d lost my last gig. They were both West Indian; they’d grown up in the mountains; they’d found cushy middle-class gigs in the States. When I’d told my mother about losing the job, she’d sobbed on the phone, intermittently, for thirty minutes, just wailing. My father just shook his head. I’d been their hope for new money. After I came out, they’d mostly stopped asked questions, and we’d mostly lost our points of connection—but this they could understand. Aimless young men are like roaches. We exist in every pocket of the world. I told them I’d figure it out. They asked if I could do it at home, back in the suburbs. I declined without declining every time, steering the conversation to relatives who couldn’t have given a fuck about me. There was the ex, too. We’d met on the apps. He was a bear-ish white guy, the kind that always happened to me. For a while, I thought he was with me because he was just into black guys, and I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But he was nice. I was old enough to know that niceness is a rare, fleeting thing. And he was rough when we fucked, a bit like a savage pillow, and the loudest noises he ever made around me were when he came. Afterwards, he’d become himself again, and I’d set my head on his stomach, and that’s exactly how we were when I told him I’d lost the gig. And it’s exactly how we were when he broke it off, a few days later, in a whisper: he didn’t come from money, but he’d never known anything but middle-class. Losing my job wasn’t the only catalyst, I don’t think. But it didn’t help. Six months in, the sauna’s internal rhythms gelled with mine. Eddy was big on theme nights. We held them pretty often. Foam parties on Wednesdays. Black-Outs! on weekends. The spa kept Happy Hour prices at lunchtime, and we’d hit up to 250 men in the building. Locker keys appeared and disappeared and reappeared, creating a fucked-up Rorschach behind the counter. Leo called it our little exhibit, curated by heathens. These were the days that our building was the loudest. Everyone fucked everywhere but the spa, and only because of a large, laminated sign that said NO FUCKING, PLEASE. Every few days, Eddy drove it to midtown for relamination. Someone would’ve inevitably pulled it from the wall, blurring the print in the steam, and we’d find condoms in the hot tub hours later. One day I asked Eddy how he fell into his job. He looked at me a long time and then he looked away. We were smoking on the roof. We’d made it a point to check the balcony twice a night. Sometimes we found stashes of pot, pipes, and spent condoms; Eddy said no one had ever jumped, but that didn’t mean no one ever would. A few weeks back, I’d asked John and Arash about the roof, and Arash had simply shaken his head, muttering about idiot Americans looking for new ways to die. John had clicked his teeth. He’d been up there once or twice. Why, I said. Drugs, said Arash. Fuck off, said John. I thought he asked a question, said Arash. I thought you’re supposed to answer questions. It was a long time ago, said John. The view up there is unreal. But it was too tempting to jump. So I came back down. And we’re grateful, said Arash. Shithead, said John. It was obvious that drugs flowed through the building, but Leo and I didn’t go out of our way to search for them. Eddy didn’t either. When I asked him why, and if checking bags might stop people from coming, Eddy looked at me and he smiled and said that people would never stop coming. But the last thing the sauna needed was a police presence. Eddy called that a death blow for business. And now, he stood beside me, leaning on the railing, exhaling smoke. I used to work in an office, too, he said. For a politician. Local government. Fun, I said. A very Christian, wholesome man, said Eddy. I was his assistant. But that only meant scheduling his girlfriends’ calendars around his wife’s. I was good at that. Sounds like perfect training for this job. No, said Eddy. It’s completely different. A few days later, we had an incident. A bigger whiteboy had been chasing this Latino kid around the building. After a third rejection, he’d decided to put his hands on him, and one of the younger guy’s friends called for help from the staircase. I yelled Eddy’s name and sprinted up. Some other men had separated the two of them, holding the whiteboy by the arms. The younger one was crying, cradling his friend. The whiteboy asked what our fucking problem was, why anyone was here if not to fuck, and why he couldn’t fuck, and it took a moment for me to realize that he was on something. His eyes were beet red. No one answered him, but they didn’t let him go, either. When Eddy made his way upstairs, he told the man to leave. He didn’t raise his voice. He kept it cool. We were pulling the man’s membership, he said, a lifetime ban. The whiteboy called Eddy a wetback and a faggot and a dog. He yelled something about reporting the sauna. Eddy told him that was fine, but it also meant he’d be outing himself. The whiteboy said that was okay. But from his tone of voice it didn’t sound that way. By then, the crowd had dissipated. The Latino boys had disappeared. The incident had become significantly less interesting than whatever sex could be found. Afterwards, I asked Eddy what I should’ve done. I told him that he’d handled it so calmly. This was an event, and he’d defused it seamlessly. Eddy widened his eyes at me. But then that dissolved into a grin. He shrugged. This is work, he said. This is a job. It’ll become boring for you like everything else. When Arash and John were at the counter later, Arash wore the biggest smirk, the first time I’d ever seen him smile. You got rid of him, said Arash. Good. He was an animal and a predator. All of the white men here are. I don’t know if that’s true, I said. All of them, said Arash. You did the right thing. Good. I don’t mind white people, said John. Of course you don’t, said Arash. They don’t mind me, said John. Of course they don’t. You’re just mad because they won’t fuck you, said John. You should listen to yourself, said Arash. Imagine what your grandparents would think. Their distant descendant, in Texas, chasing after white dick. They did too, said John. How do you think they ended up in Sydney. Then I guess you’re making them proud. Guys, I said. You’re dropping crumbs all over the floor. All I’m saying is that you did the right thing, said Arash. Eddy got rid of him, I said. Of course, said John. You never do anything. I talk to you, I said. I clean up shit and cum and the rest of it. I keep you from slipping and busting your fucking forehead open on the tile. Sure, said John, but by then he’d lost interest, crushing more cookies in his palm. The three of us stood at the counter. The door buzzed open behind us, revealing another man. We looked up, glazing over him, and he looked up, too. But then he finally smiled just before he turned away. My parents never asked about my employment, but at some point they became aware that I was working. They’d heard about my breakdown because everyone had heard about it. A friend of a family friend at the office had told them. It’d been a subject of discussion at the West Indian Foundation meetings my folks attended—that was their attempt to stay plugged into the community. Everyone met in the back of a library downtown. Fifty parents, a handful of toddlers, and even fewer of their grown children thumbing through Twitter in the back rows. Everyone mostly ignored me. One lady said she’d heard I was unemployed, smiling. I usually spent the time opening and closing apps, scanning faceless profiles, attaching them to bodies in the room. These were the only times I saw my parents, really. Probably because the meetings convened halfway between the city and the suburbs. Afterwards, the three of us would go out for dim sum, where we’d talk about nothing. My father ordered one of everything. My mother smiled politely at everyone wheeling their carts. One day, out of nowhere, after my father had stepped in his car, my mother asked if I worked at that gym downtown. What, I said. It’s okay, said my mother. It’s not fucking okay, I said. Why are we talking about this? Who did you even hear that from? I’m not saying you shouldn’t work there. Of course you are. Isn’t that why you brought it up? I asked a question. You said everything else. All of this aggression is yours. Okay. So calm down. Alright, I said. Who told you? You ask too many questions, said my mother. God, I said. I just want you to be safe. I’m working there. Not fucking. Excuse me? Sorry, I said. It’s just a job. Fine, said my mother. But it’s not sustainable. Surely you don’t think it’s sustainable? I think it’s a job. I think I’m making money. Honey, said my mother, and my father blared his horn from the truck behind us. My mother and I just looked at each other. A handful of bystanders walked around us. I wondered what we looked like to them, talking too loud in front of Ocean Palace. I want you to take care of yourself, said my mother. We can find you another job. That’s why we come to these stupid meetings. I thought you came to see people, I said. I can see them on Facebook, said my mother. Let me find you a job. I don’t need you to do that. No child needs their mother to do anything. They don’t even know what they need. And my mother started to say something else, but then my father honked again, longer, so that two men smoking on a stool beside us looked up, along with everyone else. My mother smiled at me. She mouthed, Text me, and set her hand on my shoulder. I walked back to my own car across the lot, glancing at the smoking men. One of them turned to the concrete. The other guy smiled, like we shared a secret. And maybe we did. That evening, the sauna was dead. Arash played synthy K-Pop on his phone. John kicked at the counter. They had sadly, inevitably, become my only confidants. I told them about the dinner, and the meeting, and my mother. You care too much, said John. Try not caring. It’ll clear up your skin. Everyone cares, I said. Stop kicking the door. You asked for advice. This is the weight of knowledge. If that door dents, you’re paying for it. Bullshit. And everyone cares, I said. Even the ones who say they don’t care end up caring about caring. That’s some grad school word game bullshit, said John. Arash opened his mouth to say something, but then he didn’t. He closed it, chewing at his cinnamon bun. And then he reopened it, singing along to the song’s chorus, some beautiful thing we couldn’t understand. One night I was off and the ex hit me up. We’d been texting here and there. Mostly boring shit, how was your day have you eaten lunch what does your weekend look like and so on. But we’d spent the week building up to something, a tangible thing, and it surfaced when he asked if I’d see him for dinner. The question preceded a gang of eggplant emojis. I replied with the nerd face, which I thought said a lot. And also, worst-case, nothing much at all. The ex lived in the same apartment. He’d kept all of our nice guy apartment things. We pretended to sit down for dinner, with the rice and noodles he’d ordered from up the block, and while he unfolded the napkins, unsheathing the chopsticks, the ex told me he missed me, and that he missed this, gesturing amorphously toward the wall. I said that I did, too, waving in that same popping-your-wrist way. And then the ex leaned over to kiss me, and I kissed him back, and then our shirts were gone, and then our shorts. At some point, I was sucking him off. At some point, I climbed onto his lap. At some point, I took him into me, but then I changed my mind, and I lifted his legs, instead, and after a chuckle and some throat clearing he made a sound I hadn’t heard before. Then he made more of those, like he was running through scales. A few minutes later he yelled, Stop. Shit, I said. Sorry. Am I hurting you? No, said the ex, you’re good. I’m alright. Was that too fast? No. This is fine. It’s not fine. You said, Stop. Not in that tone. That’s exactly how you said it. Alright, said the ex. It’s just that what you’re doing is a lot? Okay, I said. No worries. I’ll try something else. Cool, said the ex, but something we’ve done before? Something we’ve done before, I said. Yeah. Something normal. What we were doing is normal. No, said the ex. I mean, I just hadn’t expected it. I don’t know if that’s what I wanted. What you wanted, I said. Yeah. Like you’d ordered me off of Prime. Wait, said the ex. What? That’s not what I meant. You called me, I said. Listen, man. You’re overreacting. You know what I meant. I do, I said. Fuck. Next time, just order your fucking takeout. I didn’t expect the ex to stop me from leaving and he didn’t surprise me. I drove to Whataburger. I drove to work. Eddy wasn’t around, but Leo stood by the counter. He raised his eyebrows at me, but he didn’t make any faces, and I told him that I just wanted to sit in the sauna, and he nodded, smiling. But I couldn’t read the bend of his cheeks. Play safe, he said, handing me a key, buzzing me in. The building was mostly dead. I sat in the water for an hour. Re-showered. Went back in. After a while, I drifted from floor to floor, plodding around with half-moist heels. Every now and again a guy would look me over twice. There wasn’t anyone I recognized. I’d nod, briskly, settling my fingers on stray hands, tapping them gently until they loosened their grip. At some point, I bumped into one guy in the dark maze, a little shorter than me, and he caught me, or I collapsed onto him. He laughed. And that had me laughing. And then we were both laughing. And then I saw that he was a little lighter than me, and that he had a bit of a belly, and it sat on his towel. He touched my shoulder. And I—just reacting—touched his. We held each other, briefly, and then the guy toed open a door behind us, lined with a padded floor. We fucked for two hours. I did the thing I’d tried earlier. This guy whispered, Fuck, once, but he didn’t ask me to stop. It took entirely too long for me to find my way inside of him, and then I just stayed. Every now and again, he’d stand to lather more lube on himself. We finished at the same time, which had never happened to me before. I was exhausted, wheezing. He was, too. He lay on his back, and I set an elbow on his belly, and then he began to chuckle, a slow laugh, and that was it, we were both laughing again. He asked what my name was and I told him. He said that his was Selly. Or Zelly. He’d come to Houston from Malaysia to fix cars. I asked if he liked Texas, and Selly or Zelly frowned. The food is not so good, he said. It’s not that bad, I said. Yes, he said, rubbing my shoulder. But not so good. We stayed that way, toasting, sweating beyond belief. I imagined, for thirty minutes, for an hour, what our life together might look like. We’d fall into various degrees of trouble. We’d never buy, we’d only rent. We’d both be broke for the rest of our lives, probably, but we’d travel from time to time. Selly or Zelly would cook dinner. I would cook breakfast. We’d smile at our neighbors in Alief, transplants from all over the world. Neither of us would meet one another’s families. Neither of us would much care. Neither of us would ever be upset about anything ever again. Eventually Selly or Zelly sat up. He was sleepy, he said, and sore. Sounds like you need a shower, I said. A shower would be nice, he said. We both smiled, a little sadly. Then Selly or Zelly asked which one of us should leave the room first. John saw me walk out of the room. There was no reason for him to be on that floor. He sat on a bench behind the dark maze, fiddling with a bottle against his nose. I recognized it, immediately, and he recognized that I recognized it. It was almost comical how guilty he looked—how guilty we both looked. I almost laughed. What, I said. Nothing, said John, blinking. Why are you here, I said. I’m always here. And what are you doing? I could ask you the same thing, said John. You’re following my schedule? Don’t be fucking daft. The two of us stared at each other. John lowered his arm, swinging his feet. He set the bottle on the bench. Look, I said, are you good? Yeah, said John, after a pause. Or I thought so, he said. Until you asked me. But I think I’m okay. And you, he said. Are you okay? I’m fine, I said. You’re sure? Three-hundred percent, sir. Then we’re both good, said John. So there’s absolutely nothing to talk about. And he stood, tightening the towel around his waist, snatching his little bottle, whistling and turning the corner. One morning my mother called to tell me she may have found something for me. An actual job. Through the West Indian church diaspora network, probably. I’m not looking for anything, I said. It’s not in finance, said my mother. You probably wouldn’t be using your degree. Ma, I have a job. You’ll have to drive out to Memorial. It’s this office on Eldridge Parkway. Your father can give you the car in the garage, yours has too many miles. You aren’t listening, Ma. You’re not saying anything. I said I’m employed. I mean gainful employment. I am gainfully employed. You are working at a sex club. Ma, I said, and she probably heard me bounce my palm on my forehead Okay, said my mother, but it’s still a job that’s there. You can’t be making enough money right now. I make money, I said. Okay, said my mother. But not enough. Let me know when you want the number. The next evening Eddy glanced at me when I buzzed in, but he didn’t say a word afterwards. I folded towels beside him, signing men in and signing them out. When he took off for dinner at Mai’s, he asked Leo what he wanted and disappeared. As soon as he left, I looked at Leo. I don’t know, he said. He’s just been like that. Did you do something? Have I ever done anything? Did I do something? I don’t know, said Leo. Maybe. He’s probably got trouble at home, with his guy. That shut me up, because I’d never thought of Eddy that way. As someone with a lawn out in Montrose. Plants around the house. A dinner table with two busted chairs and a bookshelf and shows to watch on Tuesday evenings. When Eddy made it back, already chewing at an eggroll, I asked if he wanted a cigarette. He blinked at me. Then he glanced at Leo, setting the bag on the counter. When we made it to the roof, fumbling with lighters, I turned to Eddy and just said it. I fucked someone here. What, said Eddy. I wasn’t working, I said. And I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I don’t know why. Eddy took a long drag on his cigarette. He exhaled way too quickly. Do you want me to congratulate you, he said. I just wanted to put it out there, I said. I didn’t want someone else to tell you. Why in the fuck would anyone tell me about that, said Eddy. You still don’t get it, he said. Most guys your age get it too quickly, and that’s their problem. But it hasn’t clicked for you. No one cares what you do here. This is a place where you aren’t the main character. That’s why these guys come here. No babies or boyfriends or wives or anything to make them feel special, like they matter. At all. They’re just here, and that’s it. Eddy leaned on the railing, turning his back to me. I looked him over, his ass and his back. Then I stooped beside him. That’s very zen, I said. Shut up, said Eddy. I didn’t say I wasn’t mad at you. But you aren’t mad at me, I said, and Eddy coughed, slapping at his chest. Disappointed then, he said. That’s fair. So what does that make us if we work here, I said, and Eddy laughed. We’re context, he said. Then he passed me his cigarette. Okay, I said. Supporting details. Okay. These guys need us to be sustainable, said Eddy. Protagonists come and go. But the details remain the same. Those are the things that last. A few hours later, back in the lobby, I texted my mother for the number. Chatting up a new boyfriend? said Arash, cracking his knuckles beside me. New boyfriends are just old boyfriends in flux, said John. Shut up, I said. And stop eating up here. You always say that, said Arash, but you don’t mean it. Fuck you, I said. You don’t mean that, said John. If you meant it then I’d stop, said Arash. I looked at John. He made a face, shrugging. The sound of something slapping, and a loose moan wafted down from around the hallway. When my phone dinged, I glanced at the banner. It was my mother, followed by a handful of numbers, a handful of blue hearts. My breakdown at the admin gig happened during a workday, right before a presentation. I don’t need to tell you what it was about, but this was NASA, so you can guess. Some coworkers had just made some changes to a plan I was presenting. Pretty major ones. I told them they wouldn’t work, that they were illogical, but nobody cared. And I just felt thirsty the whole time. I hadn’t eaten that afternoon. Or that morning. Or the evening beforehand. The whiteboys I worked with didn’t ask if I was well, although I clearly didn’t look it. They hadn’t asked me anything. Not until just before the presentation, which they’d assumed I’d taken care of. It was our annual review, a year’s worth of work, and now it was changing on the fly. The whiteboys wanted to add mics to the auditorium. They wanted to add a projector. This was a meeting we’d planned for months—that I’d prepared for for months. I told them that wouldn’t fly, and they asked why I couldn’t make it work, because they’d thought I could handle it and I was being a little bitch. And I didn’t say anything to that. I told myself I would figure things out. But then the room began to fill, people began to take their places. That left me on the stage, alone. Fanning myself. Trying to smile. They all looked up at me, ready to produce. It wasn’t burnout, exactly. But I was roasting. Squinting. It started off fine, I guess, but then my throat caught in the middle of speaking. I tried to continue. I couldn’t. I touched my throat. I reached for some water, but it wasn’t there. And the entire time it was happening, I knew what was going on—but there was a disconnect between how I felt on the podium, and how I felt. I could’ve laughed, watching everyone’s faces. It was like watching a movie. I watched myself leave the podium, loosening my tie. I watched myself drop my jacket. I watched myself parting the crowd, past the whispers, walking out the door. It was warm outside. We weren’t expecting rain for another few weeks. You really felt it on the balcony. You were just grateful for the breeze. A few nights later, I was folding towels when a young black guy came sprinting past the corner. I’d seen him around. He fanned wildly towards the stairs. Eddy had stepped out for a cigarette, so I glanced at Leo to watch the desk, and when he nodded, I jogged upstairs. There was already a tiny crowd around the body. It convulsed in the center of the dark maze. My flashlight blinked, and I felt the body’s wrist, and then its thigh, and then its face, which belonged to John. He shivered, tucked into himself. A towel lay damp beside him. Arash held the back of his head, scooping him whenever he jerked, squinting into the light behind me. I gestured to him, and two bigger guys standing beside me, and we lifted John out of the maze, and the guys surrounding us dissolved, slipping back into their usual rhythms. The body had been moved. They’d finally been un-implicated. We carried John into the elevator. What the fuck, I said. Shit, said Arash. Do you know how it happened, I said. Do you know what he took? I don’t, said Arash, looking away. But he isn’t foaming, said Arash. He’s just dilated. He’s probably tripping. So we don’t need to call an ambulance? If you need to ask then you should call. Don’t, said John, blinking my way, shaking his head. Is he insured, I asked Arash. How the fuck would I know? They’re not too expensive, said one of the men holding John’s thighs. You’re probably fucking covered, said Arash, and then the elevator doors opened. We walked John behind the counter. Arash and I supported him. I thanked the other guys, and they nodded, shyly, before they slipped back upstairs. Eddy leaned on one table, and Leo sat by another, manning the counter. We made eye contact, just for a second. Was it drugs, said Eddy. I don’t know, I said. Of course you know, said Eddy. You’ve gotta get him out of here. What? Just drop him outside. Are you looking at him? If something happens here, then we’re liable, said Eddy. That’s when the cops come by. And that can’t happen. We make too much noise, and that’s it. And if something happens to him on the curb? Then it didn’t happen in here. And we aren’t liable. That’s fucking bullshit, I said, and Eddy crossed his arms. He started to say something else, but I grabbed John again, flipping his body with Arash, walking him down the stairs. There was a chill outside. The three of us stood together, three buildings away from the sauna. It was late enough that there weren’t many people on the street, but a gaggle of white folks passed us in suits and too-tight dresses, smoking and laughing. One of them looked at us, nudging his buddy. They erupted into a laugh. Arash opened his mouth, and I lipped, Don’t, and then he closed it again, rubbing at John’s shoulders. John shook his head between us, leaning on the two of us. Fuck, said John. I know, I said. Shit, said Arash. Are you okay? Are you fired? I don’t know, I said. Maybe. It’s okay. Are you okay? No, said John, blinking. He glanced at Arash, and then me. I feel horrible, he said. I feel fucking horrible. So you’re back to normal, said Arash. Yeah, said John. You feel just like us. Yeah. And then, he started laughing. And Arash did, too. I laughed, a little bit, and then a lot, and then the three of us were laughing, falling all over each other, damp and cold. I didn’t get the joke then. I couldn’t put it together. But I’ve since realized that it wasn’t the point.
‘My Browser History Was This Appalling Record of Someone Wasting Their Life’: An Interview with Anna Wiener

The author of Uncanny Valley on becoming the perfect consumer, digital surveillance, and why Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. 

In 2014, Anna Wiener was twenty-six years old, making a plush annual salary of $90,000 at a data analytics startup in Silicon Valley. And she was miserable. Wiener once worked in publishing in New York. Uninspired by the direction of the publishing industry, she decided to make an unconventional move from the literary to the tech world—first at an ebook startup in NYC, and then venturing to the west coast—feeling a “relief to have joined a group that told itself it was superior, and a hedge against uncertainty, isolation, insecurity,” she writes in her debut memoir, Uncanny Valley (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). But the move bore hidden costs. Wiener, a feminist, found herself navigating a misogynistic workplace culture, well-documented by figures such as Ellen Pao and Sarah Lacy. While brushing off comments about everything from her lips to her sex life, she realized that she had also failed to secure the same equity in the firm that her male colleagues enjoyed. Moreover, she began to feel uncomfortable with the way the company she worked for, which she tells me helped “enable the surveillance economy,” was tracking user behavior without their knowledge. A writer at heart, Wiener often spun sympathetic narratives for the men in Silicon Valley who had essentially taken over the world, who she trusted to “tell me who I was, what mattered, how to live”—a situation that had become a “global affliction.” But after a few years working for them, she wised up: “I was looking for stories,” she writes. “I should have seen a system.” I spoke to Wiener, who now covers tech culture for the New Yorker, on the phone from her apartment in San Francisco. Hope Reese: You saw a “future” for yourself in tech that you didn’t see working in publishing. What did that look like? Anna Wiener: I’d been an assistant for a few years, and it wasn’t clear what the path forward was for me. I was interviewing for jobs that were also assistant jobs. It just sort of felt like a slow-moving, dues-paying culture. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to do that, but I didn’t know what the end game was. The decision was largely about looking at the jobs ahead of me in publishing and not being sure there was space for me, and falling backward into this publishing-adjacent startup and feeling like there was this whole world ahead of these guys. This whole industry with so much momentum, where people moved quickly. It felt like the opposite of publishing. But, in hindsight, there’s a reason publishing moves slowly. There’s a really different approach to output, and a different strategy in how you release work. But I was just looking around and trying to figure out what the future held for me. For millennials, you write that “those who understood our cultural moment saw that selling out—corporate positions, partnerships, sponsors—would become our generation’s premier aspiration, the only way to get paid.” How much was money a factor in your decision to enter the tech world. To clarify: I did not have student loans. I want to be really clear about the different privileges I had that made it possible to go into publishing in the first place. For me, it was a combination of things. It was a desire to feel useful and to feel valued. In my mid-twenties, without a ton of work experience, money was how people attached value to things. Going to a job with a higher salary, there was some feeling that I was doing things right. It’s a really dark and slippery slope, and fucked up, but at the time, I was looking for anything that would tell me I was doing something right.  When you arrived in San Francisco, you describe observing the huge wealth disparity. And the fact that certain people living with rent control were not those that rent control was intended for. What did it feel like to see this? To observe the disparity and also understand that your presence is exacerbating it. It’s also a reflection of broader social ills and political failures. The narrative of blaming the homelessness crisis or the wider disparity on the tech industry is not the correct narrative—the tech industry has exacerbated and accelerated those problems, but they have very deep roots. Personally, I felt a lot of shame. I lived in the Haight, and there’s a lot of homelessness in the Haight, a lot of people slept in Golden Gate Park. I remember one night, we had leftover pizzas at the office, and I was stacking up pizzas to go to bring to the park, and a coworker said, “Wait! Don’t take the one with the prosciutto.” There was something that felt so horrible about that. You sort of have to laugh at that, because it’s so vile. Your salary at twenty-six was $90,000 a year, and many people working with you made more than that. What was it like to have this money? Did it change you? Did it change people around you? Money changes people. I wanted to be transparent about my own salaries and what my equity was worth, to show the stakes, but I also want to be clear that I was pretty low-ranking. There were people making six times my salary. I wouldn’t say that I’ve extricated myself from that. My jobs have changed but my circumstances are stable, and that comes from my background. One of the things I found interesting in San Francisco in the last few years is the anticipation of this new money, how people are trying to build businesses or build real estate that appeals to this cohort. I had a lot of fun poking into open houses and seeing how they’re decorated. The lifestyle branding. I don’t know how many people enjoy that, but the aesthetics of this wealth are interesting to me. They’re somewhat self-denying, but decadent. What’s interesting to me about the money is that a lot of people aren’t interested in material goods or art or philanthropy. A lot of it gets pumped back into the industry. It’s a running joke here about people becoming angel investors once they’ve had a windfall working for a company that’s IPO’d—everyone adds “angel investor” to their Twitter bio. It’s this aspirational thing, but it’s a sign of a moral value. It’s funny to me … it’s seen as philanthropic, but what you’re really doing is perpetuating the cycle, giving money to the same people. Instead of specifically naming companies in your book, you call them things like, “the social network everyone hated.” Why did you choose to keep these companies anonymous? I did that for stylistic reasons. I wanted to separate the companies from any associations readers might bring. The primary reason was that I don’t think it matters. They were all expressions or reflections of structural forces. In a lot of ways, these companies that I worked for could have been any company, and the executives could’ve been any people. It’s a highly specific world, but none of what happened to me was unusual. I also think the names are ridiculous. Isn’t it mortifying that a portmanteau like “Facebook” has geo-political clout? I think it’s obscene. You worked at a data analytics startup. Can you talk about what, exactly, your company did? It’s a huge, highly unregulated area. The company I worked for did product analytics. Software that can help other companies track how users are moving through their app or website. So, anything that you do on an app, any information that you input, anything you press or slide can be tracked and aggregated and analyzed. This company was helping other companies look at user-flows through product and also helping other companies understand exactly who those users were, and where they were coming from. Basically, helping other companies move through their product in such a way that whatever the end game was, which was revenue optimization, that they would get there faster or more frequently. There’s another side of it, used for marketing. This was individualized. You could promote your product to a certain segment of users. If you want to reach people who are twenty-six, on an iPhone, active on the site between 2 and 6 a.m. and suggest they buy a gravity blanket. The company I worked for, at the time I worked there, only did aggregated reports for the companies they worked with. They didn’t sell data. But there were different ethical issues. The qualms I developed were that most people using apps or websites don't know that they're being tracked and don’t know that they're being tracked by a third party, and definitely don't know that they're being tracked by a third party whose employees potentially have access to that data. So, for me, it's more about this lack of transparency, or opacity, within the user experience where you have this imbalanced power dynamic and mediated experience in which the end user isn't even aware of what’s behind the scenes. Would you consider it a digital surveillance firm? What does it have in common with, say, a company like Cambridge Analytica, that used user data to help sway the US election? My answer is: Sort of. Or: Yes, but indirectly. The product facilitates surveillance, and helps companies collect information from users, often without users' knowledge. Data collection is almost always disclosed in a mature company's Terms of Service, but the names of any third-party tools that are doing the actual collection are not necessarily included. Basically, the company I worked for was a conduit, but I don't believe in neutral technology platforms; in my view the ethical issues of the company and product are inextricable from the broader landscape, and the behaviors they enable and normalize. I think the two serve very different functions, but they are in the same ecosystem. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm that harvested voter information and sold the promise of "psychographic profiles" that sourced demographic data from various places, e.g. Facebook. The company I worked for made a tool for collecting, aggregating, and analyzing user behavior. The "tool" also had a feature where you could see individual user activity within a customer's app, alongside their personal metadata, and send targeted content based on that information. That latter feature, which is called "People," strikes me as a pretty pure expression/outgrowth of surveillance capitalism. In theory, the startup I worked for could have enabled its customers to engage in Cambridge Analytica-esque activity inside of their own platforms or apps, but the analytics startup itself did not build cross-platform profiles. I don't know what they would have done if a political campaign had an app or a website and wanted to use their tools; they probably wouldn't have paid it any mind, and I would assume that if the campaign was high-paying or high-profile enough, the company would assign it an account manager and have a paid employee helping the campaign optimize their products and outreach. More realistically, there's also no way for me, or anyone, to know what our customers did with the data they collected on their own users. It's possible they could have sold it or integrated it with other data sets. I don't know, and don't want to speculate too much. You call yourself a “self-identified feminist in a position of ceaseless professionalized deference to the male ego.” How did you handle this? I’m embarrassed about it, looking back. I’m a little ashamed about the way that I was so deferential and did my best to normalize everything that was happening, and even participated in it. I tried to erase myself. I wouldn’t say that that’s a brilliant coping strategy, but I really wanted to be a part of something. That meant that I was consumed by this thing.  As someone who was a non-technical employee at a pretty low level, who felt really grateful to be included, it was what I needed to do. I think that if there was someone who was a senior technical woman with experience and credentials, who had already been affirmed by an industry, she might've had an easier time with it. But to be honest, I'm just thinking about other people that I've encountered that do fit that criteria, but I don't know that they were given the credit that they deserved either. It sort of led to a complete dissociation from who I knew myself to be. I own my mistakes. You write that “the tech industry was making you a perfect consumer of the world that it was creating,” and describe about going down these rabbit holes online, as most of us do. When did you start noticing the problem with this? I felt it. I had this job, I was working remotely, I mostly worked from my apartment and I had these days when the day would be over, I'd be done with work, it'd be 7 p.m., and I would just feel so bad for myself. I wouldn't be able to account for how I spent my time or what I had learned that day, or what I had even produced. Working customer support is sort of like, the tide comes in and the tide goes out. It doesn't really build into anything, for the most part. My browser history was just this appalling record of someone wasting their life. It was more a sensation, a building feeling of dread and anxiety, and feeling like I had chosen a profession where I was, potentially, perpetuating that cycle. Ironically, I’m now in another profession that requires that I be on the internet quite a bit. I write about the tech industry, and a lot of things that happen in the tech industry bubble up on social media. I’m still hanging out in these spaces more than I wish I did, but I don’t know very many people in tech who manage to avoid spending a lot of time on the internet. At the end of the book, you write that you were “looking for stories and you should have seen a system.” Can you explain what you mean by that? I have always been very focused on personal narratives and personal ambitions and justifications and psychological motivations that people have. But actually, what I should have been looking at was the structure—not working on such a micro level. For my own understanding of this world and why things are happening the way they were. I have a friend, Moira Weigel, who is also a writer, and we were having a conversation about Mark Zuckerberg, who she had gone to college with. She's just sort of threw her arms up and said, “if he didn't exist, the internet would have invented him.” That encapsulates what I mean by it. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. The people that I worked for don't matter. In terms of their individual intentions or motivations, good or bad. I think that even people with the best intentions, who think they can push against this industry, are running up against the same problems with people who are succeeding, who wouldn’t see them as problems.  I think structural analysis can be very forgiving, if that makes sense. I would’ve had an easier time, even in my own life, if I hadn’t been so focused on the individual narrative. But isn’t it partly a writer’s instinct to do that? Yes, and the industry relies on good storytelling. The industry has told these stories about itself. The biggest strengths are marketing, branding, packaging. Part of what was compelling to me about working at the analytics company was that data is a kind of storytelling. Looking at data in aggregate is fascinating, it’s about how people are living their lives, even if it’s how they live their lives online. I wouldn’t say this isn’t a world with a lot of storytelling. But I think, for me, zooming out would’ve eased the burden of trying to understand this world. You mentioned to me earlier that when you moved to the West Coast it was because you didn’t know what your end game was. Do you know what it is now? I’ve always had a very hard time picturing the future. I try not to do it. I remember having a conversation with my manager at the analytics company, and we were trying to figure out what my job should be. He said, “Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?” Classic question. As a working professional, you should have an answer to that question, even if it's bullshit. And I was very honest and I said, “I don't really know.” And he said, “You could start a company!”  I think the fact that that's the end game, that’s the most valuable thing a person can do in this world, is part of the problem. I don't see myself starting a company anytime soon. I have really enjoyed writing. It took me a long time to admit it was something I wanted to do. This book is an admission of that. 
‘Go to Where the Rawest Stories Occur’: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Talking to the author of Consider This about “dangerous writing,” testing your story-telling instincts for emotional responses, and finding laughs in transcendent tragedy.

There’s a short but telling section in Consider This (Grand Central Publishing), Chuck Palahniuk’s new memoir on writing, that simply says: forget about being likable. The book, a collection of personal essays on everything he has learned about writing in the last twenty-five years, quotes people from Tom Spanbauer to Amy Hempel to Ursula K. Le Guin on technique, style, and form. It was Spanbauer, a former student of Gordon Lish and the author of five novels himself, who created the Dangerous Writing workshop, which pushed Palahniuk to write Invisible Monsters and then Fight Club in the mid-’90s. What Spanbauer meant by “dangerous writing” was to explore the work that personally scares or embarrasses the author; to make it dangerous is to express those fears honestly through art. It was through Palahniuk I found Spanbauer’s workshop, too. In 2013, I spent a weekend in Portland working on a short story in that Dangerous Writing workshop, and then two subsequent years working with Spanbauer on my own novel. Palahniuk has never been one to write characters people would see as likable or upstanding; rather, they are deeply flawed. In Choke, one of my favorite books by Palahniuk, the narrator, Victor, concocts a convoluted plan to pay for his dying mother’s hospital bills which involves pretending to choke on food at restaurants. While he chokes, he waits for a person to “save" him so they can bask in the glory of being the hero, and as a result, these "saviors" send Victor money, which he uses to pay the bills. In Diary, the main character, Misty Wilmot, suffers through caring for a husband in a coma following a suicide attempt, after having given up her dreams of an art career to raise a family; she struggles with her past of poverty, the desire for fame, and the oppression of the wealthy islanders who are related to her comatose husband. Many of Palahniuk’s characters are trying to find success through some kind of glory, and are willing to humiliate themselves, lose all dignity, and hopefully live through it to get there. In Consider This, Palahniuk says this kind of obliteration of self is also the writer’s job, that the point of writing is to coach one’s self where one would never have gone voluntarily. The problem with being vulnerable as a writer is there’s a paradoxical desire for the work to be liked, whether that means validation through the publishing process or being accepted by some sort of readership, while simultaneously shutting out self-critique or worry about whether others will accept the work. I once talked to a writer friend who discussed the need to “lean in to your disaster”—disaster being the raw, distinguished pain of one’s words which makes a writer’s work unique, wild, and telling. Often in Spanbauer’s workshop, this practice started with an assignment about the thing you’re most afraid to tell. The idea was you might exhaust all of the emotional or psychic pain of a moment through writing, make the pain totally vulnerable, and come to a new place on the other side, changed. Perhaps this is what draws people to Palahniuk’s work: the sense that a flawed character always has the hope of being redeemed (even if they never are). I recently spoke with Palahniuk by email about craft, writing workshops, and who inspires him to be a better writer. Elle Nash: Could you talk a little about the effect of Tom Spanbauer’s teaching on your life? Consider This is dedicated to him, and the subtitle of the book is: moments in my writing life after which everything was different, a callback to his workshop. His influence on me has been very deep, and it is hard to say what guidelines I tried to follow before his workshop, even. I loved reading your words about him in the book. I know you’ve discussed his workshop a lot, mostly I’m curious to know what your ideas about writing were before Tom—before you were changed? Chuck Palahniuk: Like so many would-be writers, prior to Tom I was a Lousy Stephen King Copy. Or I was a Pathetic F. Scott Fitzgerald Copy. Meaning I'd read and try to emulate the style of successful writers. Among the first things Tom told me was, "The world already has a Stephen King." And then he showed me empirical ways to unpack and reverse engineer storytelling, and in doing so create my own style and voice. Instead of mimicking the superficial aspects of a famous writer, under Tom's direction I could begin to build the deep framework needed for truly unique stories. Presuming there is no workshop to give feedback, how do you think a writer can learn to trust their intuition? Minus any workshop, go to parties and tell your stories. Test to see whether people engage with them and give an emotional response. Also test to see if strangers approach you with similar stories from their lives, ones you might use to expand your original story. Parties are the best. A distant second-place option would be "open mic" public readings. Such readings allow you to hear where a story earns an emotional response, but most of your audience is too competitive and distracted (drunk) to offer anything beyond their laughter or gasps or groans. This sort of testing will help build your story-telling instincts. On the note of workshops, I’ve always felt that art is never a solitary act. I’d love to discuss with you the effects collaboration can have on a writer’s work—from trusting their peers in workshop to simply feeling inspired by another writer. Who inspires you to be a better writer? Go to where the rawest stories occur. In Alcoholics Anonymous I'm always blown away by the most unlikely people inventing a phrase or sharing an anecdote so tragic that it makes the listeners laugh. My background is in journalism so my impulse is always to preserve, archive, curate these incredible moments. Good, real people telling true stories inspire me to become a better writer in order to better honor such stories. You said once your formative years were the punk years. What makes something punk versus not punk? Is there contemporary fiction you’d consider punk these days? My reference was to an observation made by Billy Idol. He said that all punk songs started abruptly, ran three minutes and fell off a cliff at the end. Hearing that I realized that my best short stories began at full throttle, went only a few pages, and ended—blam. With that insight I could start to vary my pace and length in fiction. But in my reading I still prefer work that drops a reader instantly into a reality and resolves circumstances in twelve pages rather than twenty or forty. Are there any short stories or authors you recommend that drop the reader into reality like that? For instant immersion, I look for short stories. Mark Richard's The Ice at the Bottom of the World, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Honored Guest by Joy Williams, The Informers by Bret Ellis, Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson.
The Year in Pivoting to Video

There’s only ever so much you can control at any job. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. For better but mostly for worse, I have always thought of the jobs I’ve had as fundamentally someone else’s business. My work life, since the beginning, has been a matter of digging myself out from under things dropped onto me by managers for reasons I only sort of understood or cared about. Other tasks seemed to have just materialized on their own somewhere between the ionosphere and the drop-ceiling, and those landed just as heavily. I sense that most jobs are at least a little bit like this. In the early days, I did not bring my work home, in the literal or the emotional sense, because it was the sort of thing that could only really be done, in the literal and the emotional sense, in the fluorescent mehscape of an office. I did not ask questions about why I was doing any of it, because the work itself—forcing search keywords into descriptions of luxury condominium buildings like butter into a foie gras goose, or taking information that was trapped in one digital field and re-typing it into another more useful one, or standing over a thrumming scanner in clothes I couldn’t remember buying—was so transparently inessential as to foreclose even the possibility of an interesting answer. It was something I did for money, and while I did it grudgingly it’s worth noting that I was then doing everything else in my life just as grudgingly. I applied myself more assiduously to drinking in bars with my friends and writing short stories in which I visited wry but richly deserved punishments on people very much like me, but I treated all of it as an imposition that I would just have to endure on my way to wherever I was going. I walked from one waiting room into another into another, for years. The first two-thirds of my working life were a bleary hungover skein of unrewarding and luridly meaningless jobs, some of them officially temporary but all of them unofficially so. I was later pulled up into some rewarding but extremely precarious staff editorial gigs, which was much better. For the first time, I cared about the work I did and the people I worked with, but I was invariably pivoted or pushed out of those jobs after a period that did not ever exceed two years, into adrenalized and harrowing jags of freelance freefall. I did not always or even often understand why those jobs kept being eliminated, but I knew just enough to understand that 1) there was probably a reason of some kind, and 2) I would probably disagree with it even beyond the consequences that notional reason visited upon me, but 3) none of it was strictly my fault, or even probably the fault of the superiors who had been tasked with giving me the bad news. There were systemic forces at work, broader strategies and gambits, industry trends to be hedged against or surfed upon. The resulting consequences—the strange new work initiatives or the laying out of new and very different priorities or whatever—landed just as heavily on me as all the older and more obviously preposterous stuff used to. Strange new duties arrived like weather; changes just sort of happened, and kept happening. We organized the newsroom at one of my old workplaces, and what was initially thrilling and even moving about that work—all these talented and confident and ground-down people crowding into a conference room, each revealing with some shame and surprise that the weather had in fact been very bad of late above their cubicles, too, brutally bad for years in some cases—became something stranger once we finally got management to meet with us. We had long debated amongst ourselves, first in bars and then as a bargaining unit, whether the people above us were feckless or actively venal, merely kind of dumb or actually casually cruel. It quickly emerged that they didn’t really have anything in mind at all, at least where we were concerned. That company had always prioritized video, and had often done it well in its way, which amounted to sending young dudes to Liberia or Kashmir or East St. Louis to talk with the locals and sometimes shoot a gun. The type of video that we were told one day that we were going to be doing was much different. Our videos would fulfill a provision in a deal that the company had signed with a cellular phone company’s startup streaming service; that service needed videos, which maybe could only be viewed by that company’s subscribers and quite possibly would be viewed by no one at all, and we would make those. And so, every couple of weeks, we would write short scripts and go sit in a part of the company’s new showcase office space that afforded sufficient room and light and views of other, cooler employees doing things in the background. There we would talk into the camera about a story we’d written, or a thing that was happening; the videos were edited down to 90 seconds. It’s hard to know what happened from there, and the streaming service no longer exists; to my knowledge, these videos are nowhere to be found online. Doing the videos seemed, then as now, more or less the same as not doing them. Again, it was my job but not really my business. *** It is still unclear just how much people have ever wanted to watch video online, although it is well known by now that the viewership numbers that Facebook presented to advertisers back in 2015 were inflated by something like 80 percent. The delirious rhetoric that accompanied that push—“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook...is video”—makes that figure seem modest. In 2018, some advertisers filed a lawsuit against Facebook alleging that it knew its video figures were wrong at the time, and that the figures were inflated by more like 150 to 900 percent; Facebook has copped to making a mistake, but denied that it did so with an eye on deceiving advertisers. At any rate, it is also well known that this overinflation—feel free to swap in “brazen lie” here, if you want—had a number of unpleasant and unfair consequences for people working in online media. Resources were reallocated to video stuff that no one really wanted, and people lost their jobs as a result. Multiple websites pivoted themselves more or less out of existence, seemingly due in large part to peer pressure; sites could look at their own traffic and see that people did not really watch very much video, but just assumed that Facebook knew something they didn’t. In 2017, Fox Sports eliminated the written word from its website entirely, replacing columnists and features and game stories with videos of ovoid men heatedly pretending to be upset about college football. Traffic to the website declined by 88 percent in the months after the change. When I was laid off from my previous job, in July of that year, the company explained it as the result of a decision to “put more resources into video production.” They laid off everyone on our site’s video team, too, but again I assume they had their reasons, or didn’t. My next workplace understood video not as the secret future of the internet, but as a useful if modest part of an uneasy present. The sites that comprised the larger company were popular and profitable and powerfully in flux, as they had been ever since an aggrieved tech billionaire, using a honeybaked WWE antique as a cutout, successfully sued them into bankruptcy. The coterie of venture capitalists that had bought the sites at a discount briefly attempted an ambitious pump-and-dump asset-flip, then punted and brought in some consultants to justify and oversee layoffs and buyouts in advance of a different and more desperate kind of sale. Everything at the place atrophied as ownership looked for and found ways not to spend money on workers and work it no longer even pretended to care about. The satellite office where we shot our videos emptied first of people, then fixtures and furnishings. On the last day there, before management let the lease run out, I booted a wildly oversized tennis ball, one of the inexplicable promotional doodads that had been left behind, and knew that, wherever it landed, it could not hit anything that could break or wasn’t already broken. Strangely, for all the ambient hauntedness of that moment, this was also one of the happiest and most productive times I’ve had at any job. Ownership didn’t just not-care about what we were doing, but was actively and obviously not paying attention to any of it; the plugger sent up from Miami to oversee the sites before the sale seemed not to have even heard of them before. But as long as we stayed within the budgets agreed-upon back when everyone was still pretending to care, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. The lack of institutional support necessarily limited the scope, but the totality of that neglect allowed us to try things, and keep working on them until they got good. Within these limitations and in that vacuum, the production staff created a series of small and silly video series built around various people sitting together and doing various stupid things—participating in oblique open-ended competitions, parsing and rating old NBA jerseys purchased at thrift stores, unwisely attempting to eat 50 scrambled eggs. The tone of the videos was convivial and welcoming and, I thought, rather relaxing to watch; an online friend remarked that they served a sort of ASMR function for him. A tossed-off blog post that had grudgingly become a self-satirizing feature on Facebook Live—everyone was still sucking up to Facebook, then—was reimagined as a recurring bit in which I and some willing co-workers opened old packs of trading cards and did our best to remember the players whose cards we found. A reader sent a big printer box full of loose baseball cards from the 1980’s and ’90’s to the office without a return address, and we opened it and talked about those cards on camera. It was all just about as goofy as it sounds, but the videos built an audience over time, despite or because of how low-key and similar they were. My wife’s aunts passed around a video of me explaining how various plaid shirts made their way into my closet; online friends memed it as kindly as possible. The producers were the reason that any of this worked, but I felt a part of the process in a way that I hadn’t ever been before. I cared about the videos being good, and the people making them cared about them being good, and other people—not the people paying for them, of course, but other people—cared about them, too. I was proud of that. The sale, when it finally came, put our network of sites in the hands of a private equity concern; an irascible veteran digital media executive, whose personal fortune had been built running grim and nondescript content mills years earlier, put up some of his own money in that deal and installed himself as CEO. He arrived with a reputation for picking fights and cutting corners, and swiftly got to work doing both. People began to leave and weren’t replaced and the CEO busied himself hiring men he had worked with a decade earlier. None of those guys were what you might call big readers, either, but this time that didn’t protect us. They jammed the sites with advertisements until the pages stuttered and stalled and refused to load; readers complained, those complaints were forwarded upstairs, and the pages grew only more choked. Word would periodically come down that the CEO was furious about, say, a video in which my co-workers competed to identify different brands of yogurt in a blind taste test. It was never clear why, and he’d shortly get enraged about something else, but none of it inspired much confidence. “They’re playing house,” a longtime executive at the company told me of the new CEO and his crew one night at a bar, shortly before he left the company. I learned about the first big advertising deal that new team landed the same way everyone else did, which was that I suddenly heard my own voice coming from my computer’s speakers every time I loaded a page on the website. The deal, we were later told, could deliver up to $1 million in revenue provided we were able to deliver something like 15 times the video exposures we currently did across the network. Because we did not have anything like the staff or infrastructure to make that many more videos, it was decided that the ones we had would play automatically in a small window at upper left on every page; immediately following an advertisement for the aforementioned insurance company, a second video would also begin playing, with sound, in the middle of every page. [tweet_embed]https://twitter.com/david_j_roth/status/1187045902961258501[/tweet_embed] So I found myself on every page of the site, muttering or chuckling or just sitting in some strange stooped way in one or more of our videos. What was for people visiting the site just the latest experiential offense among many was, for me, both an unsettling manifestation of the self-consciousness I felt about my personal pivot to video and something stranger. Much of my job, there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day. It was jarring, as I became the ubiquitous face of the spammily cretinous new regime, to find that I was myself now part of that chaos—it was my face and voice, decontextualized and unbidden, pouring out of that pipe. I couldn’t stop it, but it doesn’t stop. So I chased myself around the page, suddenly much more noise than signal. There’s only ever so much you can control at any job, of course. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control. In time, I and everyone I worked with left that last job; the part that was ours was just shrinking too fast. And yet I still go back to the garbage lagoon, because it still feels like my job and because I don’t know where else to go. So I bring you this. Is this anything? [[{"fid":"6706301","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]
The Year in Breathing

Cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. But cool, I learned, may have been killing me.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Life lately has been very embarrassing for me, a formerly cool person. For starters, consider the Crocs, a pair of tie-dyed clown shoes I’ve worn near-daily since summer. It’s not that I was ever cool like I could pull off a pair of denim panties or whatever. But I was cool like I could look comfortable even when I wasn’t. Cool like when someone told me a while ago that I was hard to read, I felt warm with pride. For reasons equally personal, cultural, and political, cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. Cool was permission to slink. Cool was not flopping around in a pair of plastic shoes just because they felt good on my feet. But cool, I learned last year, may have been killing me. I fainted on the A train on my way to work one morning. Some days, blood leaked from my nose spontaneously. My memory, known among friends for being obnoxiously sharp, started to flag. I felt deep pain most of the time. My orbital bone throbbed with migraine several days out of the week. It finally got bad enough that I took myself to get a check-up, a completely mundane exercise for which I had secretly believed myself too cool. Within weeks, seven different specialists had investigated my body. I was severely anemic. My septum was deviated. Polyps lined my nasal passages. My heartbeat was faint. There was a 2 mm growth at the base of my skull. But the real problem, the doctors determined, was unmanaged stress. It made my jaw tense and my neck stiff. It made my brain fog up. It made simple tasks feel like missions. A neurologist prescribed a triptan, half a dozen supplements, and deep breathing. I laughed. Telling a patient to breathe is to a doctor what thoughts and prayers are to a politician. But then this spring, I found myself in a belly flop of a depression. A few months earlier, I had quit a job around which I’d organized my personal and professional identities. A relationship I’d emptied myself into had begun to show cracks. I was unmoored and pathetic. Bored, I would pad through Instagram’s recommended page. The algorithm, which typically served me an equal mix of Kardashian children and satisfying slime videos, had read the room. Mindfulness memes colonized the app: 10 ways to maintain your boundaries. How to sit with discomfort. Affirmations for anxiety. Good reasons to put down your phone. (Irony is lost on the algorithm.) I felt moved, and strangely inspired. I didn’t recognize the instinct in myself but I craved more of the warmth and clarity and comfort that came from accounts with names like @notesfromyourtherapist. Around the same time, I went to a lecture given by a friend about yoga. It was specific to her experiences and family history, but I wanted everything she described her practice to be: grounding, challenging, expansive. The next morning, I borrowed my mom’s mat and went to my first yoga class in years. And then I went a couple more times that week. I wasn’t very good. But miraculously, I didn’t care. I didn’t feel self-conscious needing to reach for a block; I didn’t feel competitive when I had to reset in a child’s pose before anyone else. Depression had humbled me. Nearly all the instructors talked in riddles about breathing, and I thought of my doctor’s directive. Is a hot fire going up and a cool water going down what she had in mind when she had encouraged me to breathe? I became more aware of the tightness in my chest, the rigid shrug that turned my shoulders into little mountain peaks, the empty pocket formed by my tongue pressing into the roof of mouth. I had subconsciously trained myself to hold my breath. It’s possible that my brain and my body have gone years without receiving the oxygen they deserved. I had been too cool for the most elementary of human functions. I spent the fall breathing, and deeply. In for four, hold for four, out for four. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. In through the right, hold at the top, out through the left; reverse. In through the nose, out through the mouth, 30 times quickly; in again and hold for 10. Hand on belly, hand on chest, in until you’re saturated, out until you’re empty. Soon, everything looked different. My hips were in communion. My toes unclenched. I stopped shaving my head. I no longer needed the friction, the erasing my barber could do with a set of clippers. I wanted the softness of my curls to return, even when they made me look like Justin Timberlake. I started flashing deep smiles at strangers, letting them talk to me even when I had somewhere to be. I understood what people had meant all these years when they said it’s the small things. Every breath was a victory. I became the most embarrassing version of myself possible, a walking cliché. I also leaned into my worst nightmare: a pair of Uggs for when the weather rules out Crocs. I feel humiliated sometimes. But more so, I feel good.