FEBRUARY 28, 2013
FOR ROBERT JACKSON BENNETT, the best part of the 2012 Edgar Awards ceremony wasn’t taking home an award for his second novel, The Company Man, at the end of the night — even though, as a 27-year-old speculative fiction writer surrounded by mystery writers thirty years his senior, he hadn’t exactly been expecting to win. The best part was shaking hands with Neil Gaiman. “He actually knew who I was,” Bennett says as if still a little dazed.
Gaiman, that rare nerd-lord who commands ongoing respect from the New York Times, had re-tweeted a video Bennett made parodying book trailers, the wan marketing videos publishers have used to push new books since the mid-aughts. The fake book is called A Sexual Experience. In the video, Bennett wears an ascot and a sports coat. The camera takes full advantage of his build and stature, and his normally rather bland face exudes a sleaziness reminiscent of Neil Patrick Harris’s character in “How I Met Your Mother.” He mugs for the camera and tickles a shoddy cardboard mock-up of the book with a long-stem rose, promising “mystery, drug abuse, fields of glorious lilies, people touching parts of other people with their own parts,” and, in reference to the book’s generic cover, “a horse and a rose, I guess.” You can see that he is enjoying himself immensely.
While Harlequin-style romance novels are, comedically speaking, low-hanging fruit, the faux book trailer seems to express a real frustration with the publishing world they represent. Constrained by necessity to low budgets and vague language, book trailers are not ideal for capturing any genre that requires special effects beyond a silk rose. Might Bennett be just a touch envious of how easy it would be to market something that falls within solid, well-articulated genre conventions — a book that doesn’t involve even a single tentacle, airship, or pan-dimensional lightning storm?
If so, it doesn’t seem to bother him all that much. He doesn’t take himself very seriously.
I first interviewed Bennett just after his encounter with Gaiman. Since then, I have read all of his books. They are inventive, strangely passionate tales populated with loners on the wrong side of the American dream who are trying to understand their place in the universe. Also, there are monsters, aliens, detectives, and gods.
There’s always an awkward moment in reviews of Bennett’s work when the reviewer tries to sum up his genre affiliations in a couple of words. Niall Ferguson called The Company Man “a love letter to airships and acid noir — by way of steampunk, sci-fi and murder mystery.” FantasyLiterature.com calls his latest book “classical mythology, Lovecraftian gothic, quantum science and what’s-in-the-woods horror.” Bennett himself once described his debut novel Mr. Shivers as “magical realist/fantastical/horror/whatever-the-reviewer-wants-to-call-it-that-day.”
We are sitting at a coffee shop in Austin, Texas; I am asking Bennett questions about his latest novel, American Elsewhere, which was featured on “most highly anticipated” lists around the Internet at the end of 2012. He tells me that although Mr. Shivers was shelved under horror and won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel in that genre, the horror community disowned it. “They were like ‘no, this is not horror. You’re wrong,’” Bennett says. “That’s always been kind of a struggle for me, in that the folks who really like my books are frequently not the genre hard-core people. It’s usually folks who read a wide variety of stuff, that tend to fall into mainstream. And a lot of the fantasy that I like isn’t hardcore fantasy — it’s stuff that mainstream, non-geek people would love to read just as much.” He sighs. “But then again no one really knows what the hell they’re talking about when they talk about this stuff. It’s all made up.”
If something is identifiable as “genre fiction,” it should be easy to identify what genre it’s in. After all, to classify something as belonging to a genre is to say that it is part of an easily recognizable group formed around shared traits. Over the past forty years, genre-bending has become increasingly common, as mainstream and “literary” authors lift plots and themes from fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and horror. In 1989, SF author Bruce Sterling invented the term “slipstream” to describe fiction by mainstream authors such as Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, and J.M. Coetzee that slipped beyond the margins of realism without being classifiable as fantasy or science fiction.
Even so, last year was a banner year for debates over the role of genre fiction vis-à-vis “literature,” thanks to a lively exchange in May 2012 between Arthur Krystal and Lev Grossman at the online portals of The New Yorker and Time, respectively. Responding to Krystal’s highly evolved snobbism (the term “guilty pleasure” figured largely in his article, called “Easy Writers”), Grossman argued convincingly, in “Literary Revolution in the Supermarket Aisle,” that genre fiction is a kind of “disruptive technology,” referring to the way lo-fi tech is sometimes able to displace higher profile tech because it is freer to evolve without restrictions.
But by far the most intriguing contribution to the conversation came in October, when Michael Kardos at the Huffington Post attempted to define genre fiction along a tongue-in-cheek “literary continuum” composed of two axes: level of difficulty and amount of “stuff” — zombies, ray guns, serial killers, and presumably, Maltese falcons. Kardos’s graph is fascinating for multiple reasons, not least of which is its assumption that everyone understands what “stuff” means. (Is a golden bowl “stuff”? What about a scarlet “A”?) Purposefully vague, it captures a strange truth about genre fiction, which is that we are capable of conceptualizing it without reference to any particular specific genre. In fact, by setting up a dichotomy between literary fiction and all genre fiction (except for, notably, audience-determined genres such as YA, “chick lit,” and urban fiction) — by collapsing ray-guns and ghosts, magic wands and fedoras, into the same category — Kardos calls attention to the fact that, in a hybridized literary world, genre fiction is itself a genre.
This definition of genre fiction is vastly helpful when thinking about Bennett’s oeuvre, which demonstrates an equal interest in gadgets and fairies, glocks and dirigibles. On Kardos’s scale, Bennett’s work would be way up in the upper-left-hand corner, at the junction of “easy-to-read” with “lots of stuff.”Because of his use of genres and historical backdrops, Bennett’s work has drawn a range of authorial comparisons with such easy-to-read, lots-of-stuff authors as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, and H.P. Lovecraft — as well as John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. “I think when people say ‘Steinbeck,’ they just mean ‘old-timey,’” he says.
Bennett’s first four novels take place in “old-timey” America — not the real America, but the mythical country we read about in history books, each chapter of which tells us a story about who we are now. “We don’t get the cool King Arthur origin story. So I was playing around with our own myths: the Great Depression, and showtime, and industrialization. Trying to look at how things got started.”
Mr. Shivers features a band of Depression-era hobo vigilantes who trek across the Dust Bowl after the supernatural boogeyman, a metaphorical specter who haunts the starved nation. In his follow-up, The Company Man, which takes place in an alternate version of the 1920s, a cop and a telepath investigate brutal union murders in a town run by a globally dominant American corporation. The Troupe, his third novel, follows a band of vaudevillians on a world-saving mission to collect fragments of the song that created the universe — rather an evocative metaphor for something that takes place during the age of American incorporation, when mass entertainments like vaudeville helped create a sense of unification in the wake of the Civil War.
American Elsewhere, out this month from Orbit, is the fourth in this American quartet. Although set in the present day, the novel takes place in a town originally built in the early 1960s near a Los-Alamos-style government laboratory. The novel’s heroine, ex-cop Mona Bright, travels to Wink, New Mexico, to claim an inheritance from a mother she never knew. Seeking answers about her mother’s past, she finds herself surrounded by eerie townsfolk concealing a dangerous (and deeply unsettling) secret. Along with writhing tentacles, mysterious government experiments, a shoot-out, and a couple of eviscerations, the novel delivers a surprisingly tender story about a woman coming to terms with loss.
Unlike his other novels, American Elsewhere is written in the present tense, which Bennett compares to the PICC line his two-year-old son had to have during a joint infection last Christmas —“ it just feeds directly in, like mainlining a drug.” He wanted to capture the peculiar, prickly feeling of sensory overload he experienced while vacationing in New Mexico with his wife and son. “The pine trees, when the sun hits them, they actually make a smell. The sap starts to circulate. So the whole place smells like air freshener. It’s unusual.”
He sees both the style and subject matter as a departure from his previous books. “I guess you could say in the past I’ve been brewing a lot of whiskey, but this is a pale ale. You have to drink a lot of pale ale to get drunk, so there’s more of it.” (American Elsewhere is almost 700 pages long.) “Also, whisky is aged, it’s old, it’s been sitting around awhile. This is a book that has a certain newness to it, and not just because it’s contemporary. It’s kind of a book that’s obsessed with the idea of newness.” He pauses. “Like nostalgia.”
Nostalgia may seem an unlikely point of reference for describing newness, but in American Elsewhere these concepts are thoroughly intertwined. Bennett sees the dawn of the Space Age as a unique moment of optimism for the future of mankind, an optimism that’s no longer available. “It’s quaint. I’m kind of jealous of the 1960s for having that kind of optimism. They had hope. In the past couple of years there’s been a downturn in science fiction, and the agreement is that the reason people aren’t so interested in science fiction anymore is that no one thinks that the future’s going to be very good.”
“Or existent,” I say.
“People worry about that too,” he says with a smile. But he is oddly unconcerned. Although his books reveal a deep pessimism about the world, the apocalypse in American Elsewhere is not chaotic. It’s an apocalypse of conformism and control. It’s about what happens when the world looks too normal.
“I sometimes worry that I would have been a better writer if my life had been more fucked up,” Bennett says in a blog post from August 2012, but a moment later he has sensibly dismissed this notion. And although it is a little unnerving to find out (from the same post) that he has “not ever had a horrible, awful, depressing breakup,” his aversion to drama has probably helped him more than hurt him. Despite his fixation on the darkest aspects of human nature in general and American history in particular, he is almost aggressively normal.
Bennett was born in Baton Rouge but grew up in Katy, Texas, a suburb perched on I-10 just outside the Houston Energy Corridor. Katy was still under development during Bennett’s childhood in the 1980s, affording him lots of opportunities for playing unsupervised in drainage ditches and around construction sites. He claims that he first became interested in writing when his older brother would tell him the plots of the books he was reading. It’s no surprise to hear that he was into Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but he also loved the original Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers. “She’s not nice, she’s kind of a bitch. They all think of her as basically a god.”
Ten years playing classical viola as child probably contributed to Bennett’s comfort in front of an audience, but it also, he says ruefully, made him unbearable. “There’s nobody with bigger heads than a bunch of kids being told that they’re awesome — getting first chair, having people clap for them a couple of times a week.” The protagonist of Bennett’s second novel, The Troupe, is an adolescent piano prodigy. “So part of the fun of writing George was getting to punch 16-year-old me in the face. It was very rewarding.”
After high school, Bennett disappeared into the bowels of the University of Texas at Austin for four years, where he took exactly one writing class. “There’s a line about how when you start painting you have a thousand bad paintings in you, so get them all out at once. And that’s pretty much true about writing.” Bennett set out to get them out as soon as possible, writing novel after novel until his fourth attempt, Mr. Shivers, got published.
“I think most people who start writing have this romantic idea of the bohemian writer. And that’s a lot of fun, not necessarily because you’re a good writer but because it’s an excuse to indulge in just not trying. I figured out pretty quick that that doesn’t actually produce very good writing, trying to live that sort of lifestyle. So I got serious about it when I was, say, 22 or so.”
Six years later, he’s still serious. Bennett recently finished his fifth book, which he signed with the mass market division of Crown. It’s called City of Stairs. It is his first book to feature a completely created world. The world it describes used to have gods, but the gods have been killed by a more powerful neighboring nation. The stairways to the gods remain around the city, untethered to the heavens, empty reminders of a more spiritual past.
Bennett considered an MFA “very briefly,” but dismissed it. Everyone else in his family has a masters in liberal arts, he says, and none of them are using it.
America, with its relative lack of codified, non-race-based class distinctions, has always been a good place for working out questions of literary status. Novels in particular have been the repository for these struggles since the 1890s, as Mark McGurl tracks in The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James. But literary distinction has been especially important to writers of speculative fiction since — well, since the word “speculative fiction” was used by Judith Merril in the 1960s to gently disentangle the more aspirational science fiction from the robot-and-spaceship kind.
Speculative fiction, New Wave (its 1960s British analog), slipstream, and their youngest cousin, New Wave Fabulism — these proliferating genres speak to the anxieties we feel over the seriousness of fiction. They are terms that militate against the tendency of genre words to conjure up particular images: a babe in a chain-mail bikini for fantasy, a spaceship for science fiction. To broaden a category is to leave room for the unexpected, and we don’t expect anything unexpected to come from something labeled “fantasy” (though we should). The thing that makes literature literary, we think, is difference, being different. Genres, by their nature, have a conservative or formulaic tendency insofar as they are recognizable.
That’s why the minting of new genres will never resolve these anxieties — even as a work distances itself from a prior category, it opens itself to accusations of homogeneity within a new one. Nevertheless, it solves very little to admit that literary fiction is a genre too, as Edan Lepucki did in a list of literary genre conventions on The Rumpus last year (“The Long Title,” “Adultery,” “A Plate Drops!”). Posted shortly after Kardos’s article, Lepucki’s drew relieved laughter from a literary culture sophisticated enough to mock itself. The cat’s out of the bag, we all seemed to say. No need for any more defensive screeds or half-assed definitions.
And yet, until such time as adultery starts counting as “stuff,” the Kardos continuum still holds, with literary fiction still discernibly separate from the ur-genre that is “genre fiction.” Grossman, for all his discussion of blurring boundaries, preserves the borderland, viewing it optimistically as a site for mutually enhancing exchange:
Blue-chip literary writers … have been frantically borrowing from genre fiction, which is where plot has been safely stockpiled for all these decades. (The borrowing happens the other way, too: writers like Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Catherynne Valente, John Green, Susanna Clarke, Richard Price and China Miéville, to name a very few, are gleefully importing literary techniques into genre novels, to marvelous effect.)
It’s worth noting that despite all this free flow of writerly toys, genre novels are still “genre novels.” And even Grossman puts them in parentheses.
Years ago, Bennett wrote on his blog about the shock of seeing Mr. Shivers on the shelf at Walmart, a.k.a. American Everywhere, for the first time. “When I wrote Mr. Shivers, I did not think it commercial in any way,” he wrote. “It was a weird, audaciously dark novel with … some very slight literary aspirations.”
Jonathan Franzen he’s not. In the post, he expresses tentative excitement over possible sales increases and is overall very grateful to have been commercially noticed. “They are sports car novels,” he says, referring to the Janet Evanovich and Clive Cussler glossies with whom he shares shelf-space. “Corvette novels. Porsche novels…. And now, sitting next to them, is my ugly little duckling. I don’t know what kind of car it is.” If there’s a tiny hint of ambivalence in the title of the post — “A place I never expected to be” — you get the feeling he’ll happily go wherever he’s wanted.
The sales figures bumped modestly; he’s still not a Porsche, and, although definitely a hybrid, not a Prius either. Still, Bennett seems quite content to be working a full-time job in Austin, turning out a book with “very slight literary aspirations” every year, and watching his son grow into a human being. “We have conversations with him now: uh-huh, water, no, okay. It’s still weird that he’s sending signals, and I’m sending them back, instead of him basically being just a grub.” It’s the ultimate experience in alien communication.