Dystopia Rising: A Conversation with Michael Tolkin

David Breithaupt interviews Michael Tolkin about his novel “NK3.”

Dystopia Rising: A Conversation with Michael Tolkin

HOLLYWOOD HAS LONG BEEN the dysfunctional muse for an impressive roll call of writers who sighted the fabled city in their crosshairs. Intimidating names ranging from Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Nathanael West to Bruce Wagner have taken their turn and left a mark. Add to that list Michael Tolkin, who began his niche with his novel The Player (1988) and continued with a savage and darkly comedic follow-up, The Return of the Player (2007). Griffin Mill, the protagonist of those two novels, has become an iconic poster boy for all disasters Hollywood. Part victim, part hero, part villain, Mill struggles with the best of them under the quasi-surreal circumstances of everyday Hollywood.

Tolkin has changed course with his new novel, NK3. Hollywood is still a main character, now pegged in the near future wallowing in the aftermath of an accidental spillage of a bio-weapon called NK3. Victims of this chemical assault end by losing their memory and thus their identity. As this high-tech plague spreads across the globe, Hollywood defends itself by establishing systems of control, which ultimately cast the locals in a class order as the once wealthy discover just how far their money will go. In a story line which is at once both fanciful and prophetic, Tolkin weaves an episode that could be too close to the truth for comfort. Disquieting would be an appropriate word to use.

Tolkin is the author of two other novels, each linked to themes of catastrophe: Among the Dead (1993) and Under Radar (2002). He is also a collector of various awards, including the PEN Center USA West Literary Award and a Writers Guild of America Award. We conversed online recently about his new novel, dystopian madness, the state of the union, building walls, and kindness.


DAVID BREITHAUPT: I am wondering what effect the Trump administration will have on aesthetics, how will the arts respond as they are currently under siege.

MICHAEL TOLKIN: The alt-right and the white nationalists are obsessed with race and IQ but have little to say about culture. They don’t even pretend to like contemporary country. Arts funding — which is woefully limited — is under attack, but not for any defense of delicate sensibilities against sacrilege or obscenity. No one in Trumpland is attacking government funding of Mapplethorpe or Piss Christ. If they were serious about protecting children from exposure to nightmare imagery, they might attack FX for running the American Horror Story series, but FX is owned by the Murdochs. Trump is a builder but he doesn’t yet have an Albert Speer waiting to bulldoze Pennsylvania Avenue and replace it with a gold-plated version of Disneyland’s Main Street, and a magic castle redo of the Capitol. If the administration survives a few more years, and consolidates, then I’d expect to see repression, more like Chile under Pinochet or Argentina under the generals, so political art would be threatened. But we can’t know how bad it will be until we’re there. If the administration were to get serious about silencing its critics, it’s more likely that the comedians would be assassinated than the novelists.

This is true. SNL would be the first to go. I was thinking of a sentiment of Griffin Mill in The Return of the Player. You write that he “wasn’t afraid that the world coming to an end; no, he was in a panic because he knew the world was already ten years dead and the future was just necrosis.” Would you claim this is one of your own beliefs?

Global warming leads to the likelihood of the spread of plagues for which there are no vaccines and the Trump administration is cutting back on funding the CDC. We are not a wise animal, and mass death is a game for some people. Griffin feels the weight of that doom when the novel begins, but by the end, he’s hopeful. As most of us would be if our petty problems were erased because we’d gotten really, really rich.

Which brings us to your new book, NK3, in which a microbe meant for weaponry is accidentally spread across the globe erasing human identity. Those who are left and who rise to power are the ones who still have memory. I am wondering about a comparable eco-disaster and if the wealthy believe their money will save them in the end, or is it, as you suggest, perhaps a game to some of them? I sense a large case of unreality.

No one after NK3 has historical or personal memory, but those whose work involved muscle memory, physical task memory, whether plumbers or surgeons, can be rehabilitated for work in the new configuration. The rich are building safe havens against social chaos. There was a good story about this in The New York Times a few weeks ago, but the bunkers seem feeble. Who could you trust? If they install a private army to serve them, what stops the private army from slaughtering them and taking the choice cuts from the solar powered freezers? How will the mega yacht crews obey orders?

I hope I die off early in the event of an ecological disaster. I won’t live long enough for the slow impending doom that seems to be coming. In the meantime, there is a big rise in sales for dystopian novels such as 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. What comfort (if any) do you think people are taking from such novels? What are they looking for?

We already live in an alternate reality. The novel of manners that doesn’t take into account the shrieking insanity of the world is an act of complicity with the deniers. The comfort may be cold, but there’s an affirmation of one’s most anxious apprehensions that suspends panic by absorbing a shifted view of things from a novel. 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are both about distortions of a recognizable world, and in NK3 I cut out traces of the old society so that there’s no chance of restoring the previous way of life.

The church chased Giordano Bruno, who created the classic book on memory, across Europe and finally burned him at the stake. What is so dangerous about memory?

My father had a slow decline into dementia, and toward the end I watched him form thoughts that were stuck behind the blocked neural circuits, like hamsters in a maze that had no exit point. The thoughts pushed against the wall but there was no getting around it, and he was trying to tell stories from his childhood, stories about the pogroms that came through his small town in the Ukraine. These were secrets he’d kept from me and by the time he was ready to tell them, he couldn’t. The memories were too dangerous when he might have revealed them, too painful. He’d seen rape and murder, I knew that much, but it was too painful to talk about. The gutting of public education is akin to burning books and burning people. Trump going to Andrew Jackson’s grave is akin to Reagan laying a wreath at Bitburg: there’s a nod to memory and an erasure at the same time, everyone knows but no one can say.

Once you had the foundation mapped out, did you think of creating political allegories within the framework as opposed to telling a regular SF plot? In the time you were writing it, proverbial shit was hitting the fan.

First comes mood, then comes story. I always want to catch the tone of the world’s emotion, or as much of it as I can see or imagine. Allegory is what someone assigns to it after the book is done. It’s the affliction and its consequences, and the shape of the limitations that mattered as I wrote it. Marci, sent by the leader of the crew at LAX to spy on the center of power, falls in love while playing the role of a Driftette, one of the most damaged in the society. She makes a choice that she probably doesn’t have to make, but it gives her comfort, and that’s the agony of the society, its discomfort. We’re a society mesmerized by how lost we are. Of course there’s a difference between weather and climate, so on any given day we can find contentment, but the best moods are surface now. The straightforward classification for the genre is “Quest and Return,” but broken because in the world of NK3, the mythologies we live by are dead. I touched on this in The Return of the Player — Griffin Mill knows that the Campbell model of the classic story, of the Journey of the Hero, is no longer true. It feels like propaganda.

With our hero myth failing, what might take its place?

The politics of resentment have taken us into nationalism and racism, where there’s more comfort in identification with the villain than the hero. Human sacrifice replaces self-sacrifice. Did you see Gorsuch answer Al Franken’s questions about how he could support the firing of a trucker who would have frozen to death if he’d followed company orders and stayed with his cargo instead of driving to keep the heat going in his cab? Gorsuch said, “I totally empathize [with him],” meaning that he could feel Franken’s sympathy for the trucker, and at the same time, could accept the trucker’s risk of death as the price of upholding the employer’s sovereignty. The country accepts the slaughter of school children as the price for upholding the Second Amendment, and that’s human sacrifice, and a preparation for political slaughter.

NK3 has a spooky verisimilitude. You even have a wall in your story. One character states, “And we call this the Fence, but it’s really a wall, isn’t it? Calling it the Wall, though, Chief says makes it sound too important. But look at it. A thousand miles around, ten thousand feet high, steel plates, cinder block, and reinforced concrete and protected from attack by poisoned electricity.” Walls seem to be trademarks of bad times, yes?

Robert Frost, from “Mending Wall”:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Frost nails it.

I love the way he misspells offense.

NK3 is in some ways a departure from your previous work, being a futuristic work with catastrophic events. What inspired the break? 

The future may be a new zone for me, but catastrophe is the theme of Among the Dead, The Rapture, and Deep Impact. And in The Return of the Player, Griffin is panicked because he looks ahead to catastrophe and will do anything he can to make the hundred million dollars he thinks he needs if he’s going to survive the global meltdown. The world is one big catastrophe now. I’m more interested in the mood of the time, the emotional tone of the time than I am in the events of the time. Maybe the book started with thinking about Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God,” the skull covered in 8,601 diamonds. It’s the great memento mori of the age, and has nothing to do with anything in the novel, except the book is a response to it. Wealth and death. See, even the words almost rhyme.

We have suffered catastrophes throughout history. Do you think our current one can be corrected?

So the story goes that Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and biographer, asked Kafka, “Franz, is there hope?” And Kafka answered, “Oh yes, Max, there’s plenty of hope, an infinity of hope — but not for us.” We’re an omnivorous, territorial, and essentially lazy ape that gathers in bands to steal from others, or force them to work for us, and then sing about it and sometimes even feel bad about how bad we are, but still, you know, go on more with the bad than the good. We’re wired for apprehension and hoarding, and we follow the leader. We have religion to mitigate and excuse. We have art for who the fuck knows, really? We’re funny, no question about our sense of humor, especially our gallows humor. We leave loopholes in all our contracts. This is the dystopia now and has been for a long time. The essence of climate denial is to make a bet that the scientists are wrong so there’s no necessity for prudence, just in case the scientists are right. To be prudent might cost money, and if the scientists are wrong, then that money would be wasted. The denial argument is an equation: better to risk the life of the planet than lose money. And we go along with this because it’s too hard to fight peacefully over a long period. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but not in our lifetimes. There’s going to be a massive die off, but in the long run … Consider the animal videos on YouTube, all the little movies showing animal intelligence, animal capacity for love, and animal capacity for joy. This is a new thing — they are evolving ahead of us, they are rejoicing. That dog and goose chasing each other around the rock, that Russian crow sledding on a pitched roof, that cat rescuing the puppy from the ditch, that elephant sitting on the car. They know something. They know we’re on the way out, even if a million more species are killed, in the very long run, soulful life will return to dominion, finding niches and making a shared ecology, without us. And that’s just the way it’s going to be. In the short run, the fuckers are going to have their celebration of blood. In the long run, intelligent bacteria will eat their flesh.

That’s a nice image, wildlife taking over the Earth after we are gone, perhaps the only comforting thought about our dilemma. Spalding Gray said Mother Earth needs a good long break from us. Is it time to pack it in? One of your characters at the end of NK3 says that every civilization is crushed by its own stupidity. Kurt Vonnegut thought we have passed the point of no return. Where do we go from here?

Get out the vote. That’s where we go. Otherwise, it’s pitchforks and torches, and that’s what we’re being goaded toward.

Allen Ginsberg, “Who Be Kind To”

Be kind to yourself, because the bliss of your own
kindness will flood the police tomorrow,
because the cow weeps in the field and the
mouse weeps in the cat hole —
Be kind to this place, which is your present
habitation, with derrick and radar tower
and flower in the ancient brook —

Now that we have everyone in a feel good mood, what’s next on your event horizon?

I’ll either be inside a studio working on a series or outside a studio on the Writers Guild picket line.


David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous BreakdownRumpusExquisite Corpse, and others.

LARB Contributor

David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.


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